Genetic Chaos

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Origins and Divergence of the Roma (Gypsies)

The identification of a growing number of novel Mendelian disorders and private mutations in the Roma (Gypsies) points to their unique genetic heritage. Linguistic evidence suggests that they are of diverse Indian origins. Their social structure within Europe resembles that of the jatis of India, where the endogamous group, often defined by profession, is the primary unit. Genetic studies have reported dramatic differences in the frequencies of mutations and neutral polymorphisms in different Romani populations. However, these studies have not resolved ambiguities regarding the origins and relatedness of Romani populations. In this study, we examine the genetic structure of 14 well-defined Romani populations. Y-chromosome and mtDNA markers of different mutability were analyzed in a total of 275 individuals. Asian Y-chromosome haplogroup VI-68, defined by a mutation at the M82 locus, was present in all 14 populations and accounted for 44.8% of Romani Y chromosomes. Asian mtDNA-haplogroup M was also identified in all Romani populations and accounted for 26.5% of female lineages in the sample. Limited diversity within these two haplogroups, measured by the variation at eight short-tandem-repeat loci for the Y chromosome, and sequencing of the HVS1 for the mtDNA are consistent with a small group of founders splitting from a single ethnic population in the Indian subcontinent. Principal-components analysis and analysis of molecular variance indicate that genetic structure in extant endogamous Romani populations has been shaped by genetic drift and differential admixture and correlates with the migrational history of the Roma in Europe. By contrast, social organization and professional group divisions appear to be the product of a more recent restitution of the caste system of India.

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Patterns of inter- and intra-group genetic diversity in the Vlax Roma as revealed by Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA lineages

Previous genetic studies, supported by linguistic and historical data, suggest that the European Roma, comprising a large number of socially divergent endogamous groups, may be a complex conglomerate of founder populations. The boundaries and characteristics of such founder populations and their relationship to the currently existing social stratification of the Roma have not been investigated. This study is an attempt to address the issues of common vs independent origins and the history of population fissioning in three Romani groups that are well defined and strictly endogamous relative to each other. According to linguistic classifications, these groups belong to the Vlax Roma, who account for a large proportion of the European Romani population. The analysis of mtDNA sequence variation has shown that a large proportion of maternal lineages are common to the three groups. The study of a set of Y chromosome markers of different mutability has revealed that over 70% of males belong to a single lineage that appears unique to the Roma and presents with closely related microsatellite haplotypes and MSY1 codes. The study unambiguously points to the common origins of the three Vlax groups and the recent nature of the population fissions, and provides preliminary evidence of limited genetic diversity in this young founder population.

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