African-Americans are searching for their roots. However, the researchers have found that only one in 10 African Americans may be able to find clues about their ancestral origins if mitochondrial DNA is tested. Mitochondrial DNA is the portion of the body’s genetic code that is inherited from the mother. In recent years, mitochondrial DNA has become a popular way for tracing maternal ancestry and often is used by companies hired by African Americans to help them trace their ancestry in Africa.

Biologist Bert Ely, who has been working on this project for 4 years, says, “For African Americans, such a test could provide a clue about the ethnic group or country in Africa where one of their maternal ancestors originated.At first glance, it seems that this DNA test would be a good place to start. Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to daughter with few, if any, changes occurring over many generations. But the task is particularly difficult in Africa because there is more genetic diversity among Africans than among people from any other continent and because humanity has been in Africa longer than anywhere else. Another complication is that DNA is spread geographically as people migrate. Thus, identical mitochondrial DNA can be found in people throughout sub-Saharan Africa.”

Ely and his colleagues relied on a database of more than 3,700 mitochondrial DNA sequences obtained from people now living in sub-Saharan Africa. They also used two African-American samples, including people who identify themselves as “Gullah/Geechee” and live along the islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. They found that more than half of the African-American DNA sequences were found in many different sub-Saharan ethnic groups and came to the conclusion that, “for most African Americans, it is impossible to use only mitochondrial DNA to determine a single ethnic group as the source of the maternal ancestor.”

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