It is a question that has been asked for generations: “Who is the Filipino?”
A Filipino-American scientist and global genomics expert believes the answer is in every one of us, literally.
Michael Purugganan, a world authority on the molecular study of the origin, evolution and characteristics of organisms, is calling on the government, private sector and Filipino scientists to embark on the Philippines’ own genome project—an undertaking that would determine where the Filipino comes from.
“One of the things that I’ve always advocated is a systematic analysis of the genome of Filipinos… It’s still really basic research but I think it has practical values. It allows us to see, for example, what genetic diseases we might have, which might help doctors,” Purugganan told the Inquirer on Jan. 30.
“Just as important is that it allows us to see who we are, to tell the story of who we are. That’s a very powerful idea, that we as Filipinos can go to our DNA and see who we are and what makes us different,” said the dean of science at New York University (NYU) while on a visit to Manila.
Purugganan, who works closely on rice genome studies with the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute, proposed to look into the DNA of a representative group of 10 Filipinos from different provinces and tribal groups, and sequence their genome, the entirety of an organism’s genetic makeup.
The project would ultimately answer the question that one local apparel brand posed through billboard ads last year: “What’s your mix?”
“I remember somebody asking me that and I had to think about it. I said, ‘I actually don’t know what being a Filipino means genetically.’ So, genetically we’re mixtures of Taiwanese, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Arab, Spanish, probably some American and British. It’s just different degrees,” Purugganan said.
This is not to say, however, that no one is native Filipino, said Purugganan, who became the features editor of the Collegian in the early 1980s and finished a chemistry degree at the University of the Philippines (UP), before taking up advanced studies in top universities in the United States.
Most everyone, after all, is born with a mix of bloodlines from different parts of the world, given the long history of human migration, settlement and, in the case of the Philippines, colonization.
“Of course, there is native Filipino. What it means to be native Filipino is to be somebody who lives on these islands and traces his ancestry from all these people who have come to these islands for tens and thousands of years,” said the professor, who heads NYU laboratories in New York and Abu Dhabi primarily studying the evolution of plant genomes.
“Even though we’re mixtures from all these places, we can find out what makes us different from all those mixtures,” said the Manila-born Purugganan.
He said other countries like India and China had sequenced the genomes of their citizens as they understood “why it’s important economically and culturally.”
“India has sequenced 200 genomes. China has done it and there’s a big international project on a thousand genomes. They want to know who they are. They want to know what mutations there are in genomes of citizens that would allow them to develop new drug therapies,” the professor said.
It’s a test that Purugganan had done on himself to determine his ancestry. “I actually thought that my father was a quarter Spanish. Turns out my father was half-Spanish. My grandmother was full Spanish. I’m quarter,” said the 49-year-old professor, who visits the Philippines once or twice a year.
“And I found out that my Y chromosome, the maleness gene, is related to the Y chromosomes found in China, which is probably true because we probably got a lot of immigration from China and a lot of intermarriages,” he said.
While already tied up in teaching, laboratory and administrative tasks at NYU, Purugganan said he would be willing to lead the effort. He believed the project should be conducted by an all-Filipino team.
“We do have in the country people who can do it. They’ve never done this project but I don’t think that would stop them from doing this… I think our scientists are very, very good, really motivated, well-trained and they’re looking for exciting challenges,” he said.
He expressed admiration for his Filipino colleagues, noting how they cope with challenges that continue to hound scientists in the Philippines, including limited resources for research and low pay.
Purugganan said the Philippine Genome Center at UP Diliman had expressed interest in the project if granted proper funding. The NYU dean of science, who sits on the center’s international advisory board, said he was “very impressed” with UP’s genome lab, saying it had genome sequencers and other equipment at par with those used in top laboratories overseas.
He said his proposed Philippine genome study could be done at P5 million. Government and private foundations could partner for the program. “It’s something that would be exciting, something that would resonate with Filipinos,” he said.