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Ancestry, Family, History, and Genetics Collide in New Book on 'Wandering' Genes


In 1999, a young Hispano woman named Shonnie Medina died of breast cancer. Despite her family being of Spanish and American Indian ancestry, Medina was found to have a breast cancer mutation — BRCA1.185delAG — characteristic of Jewish ancestry. The story that follows the discovery, as well as its implications, is told in science writer and editor Jeff Wheelwright's new book, The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA. Much in the way that Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of how HeLa cells came to be through the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family, Wheelwright's book utilizes the context of Medina's life to tell the story of the DNA of Jewish populations, and explore how concepts of race and family do not always match up with the genetic reality.

"The idea of DNA has become so familiar that the metaphor may mean more than the material," Wheelwright writes in his book. "To say that something is in your DNA is to enunciate a defining element of your character, and unshakeable part of your core. But lurking below the metaphor is the bigger and darker idea known as genetic determinism, the belief that a person's life is prefigured in her genetic inheritance without her being able to do anything about it." The book is, to a point, an illustration of this idea. Medina's DNA told her something about herself, her ancestry, that she did not know. Although she tried to keep to her own path despite this information, in the end, her "genetic inheritance" took its toll.

As much as Medina and her family members, BRCA1.185delAG is also a character in this story. Wheelwright explores the mutation's origins, the theories surrounding it, and its role in the DNA of different Jewish populations. The Wandering Gene is clever and compelling — clever in that had the book solely been about BRCA1.185delAG, it may have seemed less interesting than it actually is, and compelling because Medina herself is remarkable.

Couched as it is in the context of her life story, the book becomes more than just a lecture on the origins of a cancer mutation. It becomes a history and genetics lesson, a personal journey, and the collision of these. Wheelwright also writes that, although the knowledge of her mutation did not help Medina, it did help two of her sisters and other female relatives. The story is interesting and touching, and the book is worth the read.

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