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Originally published Monday, February 6, 2012 at 5:01 AM

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Book review

A wandering gene's destructive path

Jeff Wheelwright's "The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess" charts the path of a cancer-causing genetic mutation that started with a Jewish ancestor 2,500 years ago and persists today in the inhabitants of New Mexico's San Luis Valley.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess — Race, Religion and DNA'

by Jeff Wheelwright

W.W. Norton, 260 pp., $26.95

San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado and northern New Mexico is a beautiful rural area nestled between the San Juan Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristo range to the east. It has been home to many different peoples for thousands of years, most recently Hispanos, a mix of Spanish and Indian populations.

"... Almost everyone in the Culebra villages is related by blood," notes Jeff Wheelwright, a science writer who received a Guggenheim Fellowship to support some of the 10 years needed to see his book, "The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess," to completion. And among this tightly-knit group, he adds, rates of breast and ovarian cancer are far higher than usual, as well as occurring in much younger women. Most certainly, it was realized once these abnormal statistics were noticed, the cause was genetic. What wasn't expected when tests were run was that the responsible mutation, BRCA1.185delAG, is "nearly surefire proof of Jewish ancestry."

In this fascinating exploration of race, religion and DNA, the wandering gene is the mutation that seems to have spread from a single Jewish founder somewhere in the Middle East about 2,500 years ago. Wheelwright combines a history of religion and a speculative path of the mutation's travels with the Jewish diaspora, which moved from ancient Palestine west to Iberia and northern Europe on its eventual way to the New World.

The Indian princess is Shonnie Medina, a San Luis Valley Hispano woman who presented with breast cancer when she was only 26. A Jehovah's Witness, she refused mastectomy and mainstream medical therapies, and died at 28. She "is not so much a character in this narrative as an avatar," Wheelwright explains, "like Quixote's Dulcinea."

Through his focus on what Shonnie meant to the community and his background on her relatives and their histories, Wheelwright investigates how a mutation associated with Jewish heritage might have been introduced into these Hispano families. His detective work is fascinating and wide ranging. Sometimes the genetics are a bit difficult to follow, but his research takes him from alternative and conventional medicines to issues of race and ethnicity, genetic testing, skin color and castes, genealogy and also to crypto-Jews, who either secretly or unwittingly follow practices of Judaism while publicly professing belief in another religion, usually Catholicism in the Southwest.

Wheelwright, who seems to have spent quite a bit of time in the San Luis Valley, hears that some Hispano families don't eat pork. Some also light candles before sunset on Fridays, as Jews do to usher in Shabbat, the sabbath. But the Hispanos seem to have lost track of why they do these things, which, on their own, would be insufficient to prove a link.

However, several diseases — a rare type of muscular dystrophy, a "unique strain of dwarfism" and heart disease among other problems — have now been combined under the name San Luis Valley syndrome, again found in uncommonly high numbers there. To this syndrome, cancer caused by BRCA1.185delAG has been added, providing strong evidence of Jewish heritage.

Wheelwright is a marvelously intelligent writer with a lyrical bent that complements his scientific rigor. His compassionate account of such complex subjects is both engaging and enlightening.

Former Seattleite Irene Wanner lives and writes in New Mexico.

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