Science, History and Identity

brca1One of my jobs at Promega is to coordinate our Educational Resources Web, so I am constantly on the prowl for interesting stories that will provide fodder for a bioethics discussion, a writing assignment or a case study. Science does not exist in a vacuum, and including information that puts science in the midst of its societal context is an important part of science education.

The October 2008 issue of Smithsonian Magazine contains a fascinating article, “The Secret of San Luis Valley”, which illustrates the interesting things that can happen at intersection of science and society. This article described the experiences of several genetic counselors who worked with patients near the Colorado/New Mexico border who suffered from aggressive breast cancer. The patients, all self-described as Hispanics of non-Jewish origin, carried the BRCA1 185delAG mutation with the Ashkanazi Jewish haplotype.

The results of the initial genetic testing of 19 individuals, six of whom carried 185delAG, were published in 2003 in Cancer. The authors of the paper propose that the 185delAG mutation arose in this population as the result of a founder effect, one distant ancestor who carried the mutation. Could this ancestor have been Jewish? These results garnered the interest of historically minded geneticists.

San Luis Valley, Colorado, USAOne respondent to the original study, pointed out that the families in the San Luis Valley who carry the mutation may be descendants of Spanish Jews who pretended to or were forced to convert to Christianity to avoid persecution during the Inquisition. Many moved to the territories in North America that are now the southwestern United States. An expanded study of the prevalence of the mutation in this area supported the idea that the mutation arose from a Jewish founder in the San Luis Valley. And, further conversation with some of the families carrying the mutation revealed family stories of activities reminiscent of Jewish customs: sweeping dust into the center of the room or covering mirrors while mourning a close relative.

Many questions remain about this mutation and how it arose in this Hispanic population. Was there a Jewish founder who carried the mutation? Did the mutation arise before the First Diaspora in 70 A.D., since it is found in Sephardic and Ashkanazi Jews? But most importantly, what does the presence of this mutation mean for the affected population?

pedigreePresumably now these families will have access to early genetic testing, screening and intervention to prevent and treat devastating cancers. That is a positive development. But how is this new genetic information shaping their understanding of themselves and their ancestors? And how is it informing our understanding of history?

Science and technology are becoming more integrated into our daily lives, and all citizens, not just scientists, will grapple with new ethical challenges and social outcomes as a result. Stories like the one above present compelling real-world narratives that educators can use to teach science and emphasize the importance of having a scientifically literate society. We include such case studies in our education resources materials that we provide for educators.

If you have suggestions or requests for case study materials, we would love to hear them.

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Michele Arduengo

Social Media Manager at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Michele is the social media manager at Promega and managing editor of the Promega Connections blog. She enjoys getting lost in a good book, trumpet playing, knitting, and snowshoeing.


  1. Michele,

    You may not be aware of it, but such families consider the word “marrano” to be insulting and pejorative. It should never be used.

    The acceptable term is “conversos,” (indicating those who were converted forcibly by the Inquisition), or the Hebrew term “bnai anousim” (children of the forced); as well as the term crypto-Judaism, which many academics utilize.

    It is my understanding that research has been done on the San Luis group and that the converso origins of that community are documented. New Mexico, Colorado and other nearby states were populated by many conversos who traveled with early explorers, many of whom had converso origins themselves.

    The problem is overcoming the deep secrecy of these families. In my experience, many know exactly who they are, but do not speak about it publicly or to researchers. Many others suspect their origins, while others are just awakening to those questions.

    For resources, check out the website for the Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies (which contains information on their annual conference – this year in Denver August 2-4, – as well as article indexes for their journal HaLapid).

    Numerous DNA projects at have tested Southwest Hispanic populations, and indicate many individuals who carry identifiable Jewish genetic signatures, such as the Kohanim markers. Additionally, a project that I co-administer at FTDNA, tests Ashkenazi Jews with strong oral Sephardic origin histories, an Iberian family name or an inherited Sephardic condition. So far, we have matched about two-thirds of these Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish project participants with Hispanics who either know or suspect their Jewish origins, thus indicating proof of the oral history of those Ashkenazi families.

    For more information, for an educator’s guide, check out resources at as well, which both contain name lists, bibliographies, articles and important information. You may also wish to contact Professor Stanley Hordes at the University of New Mexico, whose research focuses on converso Sephardic history and genealogy.

    My blog, Tracing the Tribe, frequently covers Sephardic and Converso issues.

    with best wishes
    Schelly Talalay Dardashti

    1. Hi,

      Thank you for your comment and information. I have removed the term from the blog entry (I was not aware of its connotation), and I think your comments add even more weight to my argument that scientific studies are providing some interesting ethical and social questions that we need to explore. Any professors teaching science and religion classes might find this topic particularly interesting and your suggestion for additional resources useful.


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