By using a unique combination of genetic data, ancestry information, and health records, a group of researchers have identified neighborhood-level patterns of migration in New York City. This kind of information helps aid in understanding both current disease and the historical circumstances that shaped the way they spread. The study was presented at the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) 2015 annual meeting in Baltimore, and may help inform biomedical and public health efforts in New York.

“New York City is an important point of entry and immigration, and has long been one of the major ‘melting pots’ of the world,” said first study author Gillian Belbin, a graduate student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS), in a press release. “The population structure there is complex and interesting from a variety of perspectives, including the genetic one.” Belbin and her team examined various migration and population transition patterns, and the effect of historical events and trends on these patterns.

Using an anonymized database of volunteered electronic health records, the research team compared records between individuals, among populations, and between current and ancestral populations. The analysis helped them sort the individuals into groups that shared genetic characteristics, and draw correlations.

For example, a group of distantly related New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent were more likely than others to have Steel syndrome, a genetic skeletal and muscular condition hallmarked by hip dislocation at birth; a short stature; and spinal problems later in life. With this information, researchers could identify the gene that causes Steel syndrome, meaning targeted screening for the condition in certain groups would be possible and beneficial.

The research also allows the scientists to compare groups of New Yorkers with populations outside of the city, both current and ancestral. This analysis is useful for shedding light on the scientific aspects of historical events. The team looked at the Garifuna people of Central and South America, a group that originated in the late 1600s when an African slave ship got stuck off the coast of Venezuela.

“What was interesting about Garifuna descendants in New York is that, unlike almost every other population in the Americas, they had no genetic evidence of European ancestry,” said senior study author Dr. Eimar Kenny, assistant professor at ISMMS. “This reflects the initial historical event that brought their ancestors into contact, as well as a lack of mixing with other groups since then.”

The researchers are now focusing on analyzing data at the neighborhood level. Belbin said, “We want to understand how people belonging to these smaller communities relate to one author, within and between communities, and how these patterns change over time.”

Source: Belbin G, et al. Reconstructing the population history of New York City. American Society of Human Genetics Annual Meeting. 2015.