Tutu part Bushman, DNA shows

2010-02-17 23:01

Johannesburg - Researchers have sequenced the full genome, or entire genetic material, of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu as part of a two-year study of five Africans aimed at shedding light on the genetic make-up of southern Africans.

The results of the study, which was conducted by researchers from universities in the United States, Australia and South Africa, have been published in this week's issue of Nature magazine.

Tutu, 78, who is of Bantu or pastoralist ancestry, and an elderly San man from Namibia, had their full genomes mapped, while partial sequencing was carried out on DNA from another three Bushmen.

The Khoi, San, or Bushmen as they are variably called, are the indigenous peoples of southern Africa and, genetically speaking, the oldest race on earth.


The study, which was led by researchers from Pennsylvania State University in the US and the University of New South Wales, Australia, showed the Bushmen to be genetically very divergent not only from other humans, but also among themselves.

"In terms of nucleotide substitutions, the Bushmen seem to be, on average, more different from each other than, for example, a European and an Asian," the researchers found.

By including Tutu the researchers were able to compare the Bushmen's genomes with that of a person who is more representative of southern Africans, genetically speaking, Vanessa Hayes, group leader of cancer genetics at the University of New South Wales and Children's Cancer Institute Australia told the German Press Agency dpa.

Tutu has both Sotho-Tswana and Nguni ancestry. Between them, these two language groups cover most people in southern Africa.

Obvious choice

Tutu, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his peaceful resistance to the then apartheid regime in South Africa, is also a survivor of prostrate cancer, tuberculosis and polio - a factor that added to his suitability because the results of the study will also be used in medical research.

Prostrate cancer has a high prevalence rate in Africa.

"For me The Arch was the obvious choice," Hayes said.

"He completely got it! He was very willing to participate."

Among their findings, the researchers noted that the five Bushmen between them showed 1.3 million novel DNA differences genome-wide, including 13 146 amino acid variants.


The researchers also discovered that none of them had any of the alleles - the alternative form of a gene - that makes people of Bantu ancestry more resistant to malaria and makes the adults lactose tolerant.

These genetic changes in people of Bantu ancestry are believed to have developed in response to their cattle-rearing lifestyle.

As the Bushmen become increasingly sedentarised, the absence of such alleles could make them vulnerable to certain diseases and conditions, Hayes said, adding further research would be necessary to fully understand the implications.

Tutu excited

Finally, the results threw up a surprise for the bishop, who has discovered he has Bushman ancestry.

Tutu's mitochondrial DNA, a part of a person's DNA make-up that is inherited from the mother and is separate from chromosomal DNA, comes from the Bushmen.

"He's excited about it," said Hayes. "He said 'I'm truly an individual from southern Africa. I'm a true descendant of the first person'."

Tutu is the second Nobel laureate to have his genome sequenced after James Watson, who was a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.

Genome sequencing is a lengthy, expensive process. To date around 25 people have had their full genetic material detailed.

On Thursday, Tutu and the Bushmen community are to be formally presented with the results in a ceremony in the presence of political leaders and academics in the Namibian capital Windhoek.

  • Frankc - 2010-02-18 03:02

    Maybe I am not so bright after all but if the Bushmen are the oldest race on earth then isn't it logical that we ALL are "descendants of the first person"?

  • Richard Kenley - 2010-02-18 05:19

    Genetic diversity increases where there is low selection pressure. Africa has a mild climate without seasonal food scarcity. It is also true that the founder effect decreases genetic diversity the farther a population migrates from their origins.

  • Loudly South African - 2010-02-18 06:38

    Who cares?
    This guy has earned our respect for what he says and does, not for what his ancestors did.
    He is a great South African

  • MikeF - 2010-02-18 07:27

    This research is great. It proves once again that the Khoi, San, or Bushmen as they are variably called, are the indigenous peoples of southern Africa and, genetically speaking, the oldest race on earth. This is a fact that we South Africans should be proud of.
    But sadly the history and the existance of these South African pioneers is not acknowledged as important in South Africa.
    As for the word/term Bantu: the word Bantu simply means People.
    But the apartheid architects gave it a meaning to suit their oppressive political agenda.
    Please refrain from perpetuating this misinterpration.
    Let's use the word/term in its proper context. Ours is the responsibility to right the wrongs of the past.
    Otherwise, great research, great confirmation!!!

  • Gavin - 2010-02-18 07:46

    Good on you Arch. We always knew your were the real thing!!

  • Wally - 2010-02-18 07:54

    Lovely, Arch, now we know who you are according to your CNA!!!

  • gee - 2010-02-18 07:56

    the issue is that we are all humans - shown clearly by our common worst traits. a probable agenda behind this study is just that - an attempt to remove the prejudice of those who see differences between the east-ugandans and non-ditto immigrants. the bastard is indigenous!

  • Sasha Lee - 2010-02-18 08:35

    I am a proud descendant of the Bushmen. I just wish and hope other mix race people will embrace this identity and that we will stop talking about our german grandfathers and french grandmothers. We are Africans. Being descendants from the first nation of souther Africa we have much more legitimacy, then harping on European roots

  • Eric - 2010-02-18 09:09

    Oldest race on Earth? What a load of crap. Did the other races crawl out of the primordial sea-slime later then? If we all have a common ancestor then no race can be older than another, genetically or otherwise.

  • Kim - 2010-02-18 09:16

    So good that he was willing to take part in this interesting research.

  • zandile - 2010-02-18 11:43

    i wanda wht am i.......wpiuld love to take the test as well....go arch!!!!

  • pawsaw - 2010-02-18 12:55

    Well although at the time of sanctions I didn't always agree with the Arch because its effect affected the majority as well which is of course now academic I am thrilled for him that he is part of the oldest race on earth. That is just the most amazing discovery for everyone. It also tells us that the Khoi and the San interbred with the Nguni and two other tribes but that there are differences between them. I have been trying to say this for ever on here that everyone is descended from the originals. I read it in a book published at least 10 years ago before the DNA genome was mapped and it was explained that the oldest known human was found and carbondated and that from her remains through similar research there is proof that mankind had his start in Africa and the everyone is descended from Africans. This research just confirms that we are all human and eternal wanderers some of us The book is called Out of Africa's Eden and is by Stephen Oppenheim/er. So exciting to know that we are all just humans who have adapted and interbred again at various times to climatic conditions and environmental factors. We should really stop looking at differences and start learning from one another so that we can exist in harmony with our earth. Language plays a huge role in this and is affected by culture hence the importance of preserving rather than destroying. I wonder if they tested any aborigines to see wheether they too are connected to the Khoisan. I think it would make great sense to do so.

  • Moedswillig - 2010-02-18 13:01

    Do you have to pay for your DNA to be mapped? Think its a great project and it shows just how mixed we really are. Fantastic.

  • Tebogo Khaas - 2010-02-18 18:49

    Based on the report, archbishop Tutu is certainly not the first South African to participate in a genome study. I and and few other South Africans did similar tests 3-4 years ago - an initiative of National Georgraphic and IBM. I am pleased that It is quite a fascinating project and a revelation!

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