Did You Know? Genetic Research Lags for African Americans

Although there has been a recent boom in DNA research, little is known about the connection between DNA and disease in African Americans. This is because most genetic research studies intentionally limit enrollment to a single population — usually northern Europeans — since the analysis is easier to carry out in groups tracing ancestry to just one continental region.

Since discoveries made in one population aren’t always applicable to other ancestral groups (a genetic variant might not be associated in other populations, or might have a different effect) it is important to carry out additional research. Studying African Americans is complicated, though — most members of this group trace their ancestry to both Africa and Europe and it isn’t straightforward to figure out which pieces of their chromosomes came from each continent, something that is important for teasing out links between DNA and disease.

In this example of an ancestry painting from 23andMe, an African-American woman has DNA that traces to Europe (blue), Africa (green) and Asia (orange). Theoretically, a genetic factor identified in Europeans could be applicable if she inherited the version of the genetic factor tracing to Europe as opposed to the version tracing to Africa or Asia. It isn’t always this straightforward, however, and association studies should be carried out in African American cohorts in order to confirm or negate that the genetic factor is applicable.

Bridging the gap in research is particularly important for diseases that affect African Americans more than the rest of the population. Prostate cancer is a prime example. African American men have the highest rate of prostate cancer in the United States and are more than twice as likely as men of other ethnicities to die of the disease (62% in African American males versus 26% in American males of European descent). These numbers are staggering and point to disparities not only in medical access and treatment, but also in scientific research.

At 23andMe we strive to provide meaningful genetic health reports to individuals of all ethnicities but are often hampered by the lack of published studies in non-Europeans. Our Established Research report on prostate cancer reflects this lack of research and currently includes three markers for African Americans while reporting 12 markers for people with European ancestry. The need for more research involving African Americans is further supported by recent studies showing that many factors linked to prostate cancer in European populations aren’t applicable to African Americans and by the fact that less than one-third of our current health reports provide results applicable to people with African ancestry.

23andMe recognizes that research has lagged in this area and in an effort to reverse this trend has launched Roots into the Future, an initiative aimed at discovering connections between DNA and disease in 10,000 African Americans. Enrollment for this study is near completion, but individuals who identify as African American, Black, or African can still contribute to research by signing up as customers of 23andMe and answering surveys about their health. Our aim is to provide disease risk reports for everyone — regardless of their ancestral origins — and you can be a part of this exciting process.

(23andMe customers can view their risk for prostate cancer in their Prostate Cancer Established Research report. See our website for a list of health reports that are applicable to African Americans.)

February is Black History Month — see our previous posts on sickle cell disease and African ancestry!

Did you know? provides tidbits of information about genetics (both in humans and in other animals) and explains how DNA relates to both ancestry and health.


  • Renate

    I’m disappointed that the RITF project wasn’t willing to simply offer me the upgrade, so that I could participate in the study. I had already done testing with 23&Me long before the program started, and I paid for it. I’ve been on the waiting list for quite some time to get kits for family members. I do hope the project will be reopened.

    • http://23andme.com Shwu

      Hi Renate,

      We would love to have you participate in the Roots into the Future Research Initiative. There is no upgrade required – all you would need to do is take the “Roots into the Future: Health History” survey. Please email roots-help@23andme.com so that we may add you to the study.

      We really hope your relatives can join, as well. We are working hard to reopen enrollment as soon as possible. Thanks for your interest!

  • Lee

    I look forward to participating, if I am chosen. Thank you for launching this project.

  • Steph

    Any updates on the likelihood and timing of when the project would be reopened? Would love to participate with my family. Much thanks!

    • BHromatka

      Hello Steph,

      Thank you for interest in Roots into the Future! If you haven’t already done so, please go to https://www.23andme.com/roots/ and enter your email address to be notified of updates. We do hope to reopen enrollment, but can’t offer any specifics at the this time.

Return to top