Leveraging genetic ancestry to study health disparities

Ken Batai, Stanley Hooker, Rick A. Kittles

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Research to understand human genomic variation and its implications in health has great potential to contribute in the reduction of health disparities. Biological anthropology can play important roles in genomics and health disparities research using a biocultural approach. This paper argues that racial/ethnic categories should not be used as a surrogate for sociocultural factors or global genomic clusters in biomedical research or clinical settings, because of the high genetic heterogeneity that exists within traditional racial/ethnic groups. Genetic ancestry is used to show variation in ancestral genomic contributions to recently admixed populations in the United States, such as African Americans and Hispanic/Latino Americans. Genetic ancestry estimates are also used to examine the relationship between ancestry-related biological and sociocultural factors affecting health disparities. To localize areas of genomes that contribute to health disparities, admixture mapping and genome-wide association studies (GWAS) are often used. Recent GWAS have identified many genetic variants that are highly differentiated among human populations that are associated with disease risk. Some of these are population-specific variants. Many of these variants may impact disease risk and help explain a portion of the difference in disease burden among racial/ethnic groups. Genetic ancestry is also of particular interest in precision medicine and disparities in drug efficacy and outcomes. By using genetic ancestry, we can learn about potential biological differences that may contribute to the heterogeneity observed across self-reported racial groups.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)363-375
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2021


  • genetic ancestry
  • health disparities
  • precision medicine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Anthropology


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