Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ fascinating, PBS mini-series Finding Your Roots, traces the ancestries of prominent Americans from Branford Marsalis and Condoleezza Rice, to Samuel L. Jackson and John Legend.  But where the genealogical paper trail ends for many African-Americans, due to the history of slavery, the DNA search begins. One of the DNA experts assisting Professor Gates in the series is Dr. Rick Kittles,  a brilliant, forty five-year old geneticist, who serves as Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine; division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Kittles also is the co-founder and Scientific Director of African Ancestry, Inc., a nine year-old, ancestry tracing company with a DNA database comprised of over 25,000 African DNA lineages. EBONY spoke with Dr. Kittles about what DNA is, and how it reveals the hidden past, and complexity of our African-American heritage.

EBONY:  We’ve all heard of DNA, but give us a thumbnail sketch of what it actually is.

Rick Kittles: DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid] is the genetic material – the chemical that’s in every cell of our body, that’s important for coding different physical features and traits. You receive half of your DNA from your mother, and the other half comes from your father. DNA is very instrumental in terms of coding for things that make us human: skin color, hair texture, eye color, and physical features. But it also [shows] susceptibility to cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. DNA is important for tracing ancestry because it’s like a record of the history of you as an individual, within your family, community, and within a particular region in the world. We can use that information to trace where a person’s ancestry came from.

We can go all the way back to when humanity started in Africa over 150,000 years ago, or we can look at a more recent window, like for instance, right before the slave trade. Those changes in the DNA are different than the older changes that occurred 150,000 years ago.

EBONY: We know what DNA tells us. What doesn’t it tell us?

RK: It’s not going to tell us if a person who just got accepted into Harvard is actually going to be able to graduate [laughs]. It doesn’t provide useful information for behavioral or psychological traits. Also, as it relates to overall health, DNA plays some role, but it’s not one hundred percent. There are certain changes in the DNA that increase your risk for cancer, but what also plays a very significant role is exercise and lifestyle; what we consider the environment.

EBONY: As far as tracing our ancestry is concerned, are there specific types of DNA that links us back to Africa?

RK: The one that’s really informative for African-Americans is mitochondrial DNA [mtDNA]. It’s passed on through women. Males receive it from their mothers, but they can’t pass it on to their kids. It represents the lineage of women in the family. We also look at the Y chromosome DNA, which is a history of the male lineage in the family. There are DNA patterns that are specific to Africans: For instance, there’s what we call a Y chromosome alu polymorphism [YAP] that is found just in West Africa, and is definitive for West African ancestry. But the most interesting thing is, when we look at most African-American men, upwards of thirty five percent of their Y chromosomes don’t go back to Africa; but to Europe!

EBONY: That’s because of slavery; African women mating with European men…

RK: That’s right. It’s really the behavior of slaveholders during slavery and afterwards … It’s what we call sex-biased gene flow. Of the genes from Europeans that came into the African-American population, the majority of them came from men.

EBONY: In the series, Professor Gates concluded that virtually all African-Americans are not one hundred percent African. Percentage wise, how do Black Americans break down, with regards to their African, European and Native American ancestries?

RK: We call that the admixture analysis. The bulk of African-Americans have about on average, twenty percent European ancestry. So that means that most African-Americans are about eighty percent West African. There are also a significant portion of individuals who, like Professor Gates, have significant European ancestry. I would say upwards of about fifteen percent of all African-Americans have greater than fifty percent European ancestry.

EBONY: Does DNA analysis also support Dr. Gates’ contention in the series that Black people have less Native American ancestry than they belief?

RK: Yes. It does support that. But there could be several reasons for that: We claim Native American ancestry before we claim European ancestry … The other reason could be that some of the genetic markers that we have aren’t really that informative for Native American ancestry …The jury is still out. There is no strong consensus. We still maybe we’re missing a significant portion of the Native American gene pool, because many of them had died off. And so there are no pure Native Americans any more. So our ability to detect the Native American genetic component is rather limited.

EBONY: One of the things that struck me in the series was that some of the African ancestry of the African-Americans profiled went not to familiar places like Senegal and Nigeria, but to Gabon, Guinea-Bissau and Cameroon. Was I thinking stereotypically?

RK: Yes [laughs]. We learned a lot about where enslaved West Africans came from. And the stereotypic, Senegal/Nigeria [areas of origin] is inaccurate. While there was a portion of folk who came from those regions, it was a lot more than those two regions. We’re finding a lot of hits from Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau and Ghana.

EBONY: It’s rare to see a Black company headed by a Black man in your scientific discipline. What sparked your interest in science?

RK: African Ancestry was started because I wanted to know where I was from. And so my research focused more on trying to answer that question. And in doing so, different people heard about [my interest of study], and different media stories emerged. And I started becoming more overwhelmed with the general public asking me to help them. So I set up a company to help me do that that. I got into science and genetics because I wanted to know more about myself. And I felt that genetics would be quite helpful in answering those questions.

EBONY: Having said that. What are your admixtures?

RK: I have eighty percent West African ancestry, and twenty percent European ancestry. I tested four lineages in my family: Both of my mother’s parents go to Nigeria; one Hausa and one Ibo. And on my father’s side, Senegal – the Mandinka – and my Y chromosome is common in Germany.