COLD SPRING HARBOR, NEW YORK--As fighting continues in the Middle East, a new genetic study shows that many Arabs and Jews are closely related. More than 70% of Jewish men and half of the Arab men whose DNA was studied inherited their Y chromosomes from the same paternal ancestors who lived in the region within the last few thousand years.
The results match historical accounts that some Moslem Arabs are descended from Christians and Jews who lived in the southern Levant, a region that includes Israel and the Sinai. They were descendants of a core population that lived in the area since prehistoric times. And in a recent study of 1371 men from around the world, geneticist Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona in Tucson found that the Y chromosome in Middle Eastern Arabs was almost indistinguishable from that of Jews.
Intrigued by the genetic similarities between the two populations, geneticist Ariella Oppenheim of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who collaborated on the earlier study, focused on Arab and Jewish men. Her team examined the Y chromosomes of 119 Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews and 143 Israeli and Palestinian Arabs. Many of the Jewish subjects were descended from ancestors who presumably originated in the Levant but dispersed throughout the world before returning to Israel in the past few generations; most of the Arab subjects could trace their ancestry to men who had lived in the region for centuries or longer. The Y chromosomes of many of the men had key segments of DNA that were so similar that they clustered into just three of many groups known as haplogroups. Other short segments of DNA called microsatellites were similar enough to reveal that the men must have had common ancestors within the past several thousand years. The study, reported here at a Human Origins and Disease conference, will appear in an upcoming issue of Human Genetics.
Hammer praises the new study for "focusing in detail on the Jewish and Palestinian populations." Oppenheim's team found, for example, that Jews have mixed more with European populations, which makes sense because some of them lived in Europe during the last millennium.