The Roma people have long held a special fascination for population geneticists who study the frequencies of genetic diseases. The largest minority in Europe, the Roma number 10 to 12 million and live in scattered groups, mostly in central and southeastern Europe. A recent Comment in Nature, from a team at the University of Freiburg, explores how "Europe's Roma people are vulnerable to poor practice in genetics."
A Tragic History
The Roma, once called gypsies, likely originated in the Punjab region of northwest India about 1,500 years ago. They traveled to Persia (Iran), then through Armenia to the Balkan peninsula, and reached the Iberian peninsula by the 15th century. Their genomes diversified as people joined along the way. After their arrival in Portugal and Spain, persecution began. It was the beginning of extreme discrimination and isolation that would unfold over the years.
The Roma and the Jews became the targets of the Nazi goal of "racial hygiene." In 1936, investigators at The Race Hygiene and Population Biology Research Centre drew pedigrees of these groups to form the rationale of a "scientific basis" for the "final solution." German geneticists studied the Roma. Ferdinand Sauerbruch, nominated for a Nobel, submitted a grant proposal to conduct "genetic and medical research" in Auschwitz, which the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft funded. Hundreds of thousands of Roma died in experiments.
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