The Exeter Bulletin — Fall 2010
Johnathan Friedlaender '58
October 15, 2010
Gene Sleuthing in the South Pacific
Jonathan Friedlaender '58 can tell you a lot about genes, specifically the gene pool found in Melanesia, the island region north and northeast of Australia. An expert on Southwest Pacific biological anthropology, he has made 11 expeditions to the Melanesian islands and published dozens of papers and four books on Pacific genetics and anthropology.
Some of his most satisfying and important work, he says, has been in the 10 years since his retirement fromacademia,which was spurred by the diagnosis of an advanced case of melanoma. "Facing a very uncertain future, being told I had perhaps only months to live,mademe focus on what I really wanted to accomplish in whatever time I had left," he says."It's been frightening, but it's also been an incredibly fulfilling time."
Friedlaender's fulfillment stems fromhis collaboration with his wife, Françoise, and their publication work, culminating in a recent paper,"The Genetic Structure of Pacific Islanders," and the edited volume Genes, Language,& Culture History in the Southwest Pacific. In 2009, Friedlaender also published his scientific memoir From Anthropometry to Genomics: Reflections of a Pacific Fieldworker with the help of science historian Joanna Radin.
Friedlaender, the former director of the physical anthropology program at the National Science Foundation and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, began his research in 1966 while he was a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Harvard University. Conducting fieldwork for the Harvard Solomon Islands Project proved a significant catalyst for Friedlaender's career-long focus on the region, particularly the island of Bougainville.
In the 40 years since then, Friedlaender, professor emeritus at Temple University,has worked to understand why people on Bougainville and other Melanesian islands are so genetically different from one another.He has linked the pattern of genetic divergence to the extreme language diversity that also developed in the region over an extraordinary length of time. Humans colonized these islands more than 30,000 years ago and were subsequently isolated for more than 20,000 years—an unparalleled situation.
"These were [the] descendents of the first 'modern humans,' who hadmigrated from Africa while the Neanderthals were still roaming the European continent," he says.The isolation of these Melanesian groups from island to island, Friedlaender explains, enabled a great deal of divergence to develop within what began as a relatively homogeneous population. Even the proto-Polynesian people who moved across the region about 3,000 years ago made only a modest genetic impact."In most cases,you can still tell what island a person is from simply by how they look," he observes.
Friedlaender is now involvedwith two newprojects that he hopes will directly benefit Pacific Islanders.On Exonian Profile his trips to the region, Friedlaender had gathered an unusual set of health-related data on more than 1,500 people from different island groups,spanning a period of 20 years, during which they became exposed to more contemporary Western diets and lifestyles.The Polynesians,who live on the islands east of Melanesia, have developed considerably greater obesity rates and other risk factors for Type 2 diabetes than their Melanesian neighbors, but the causes of this difference are not yet well understood.
Friedlaender is also trying to develop an archive of the remaining DNA and blood samples he collected that would be available for research projects, subject to the approval of the authorities in Papua New Guinea as well as geneticists in the U.S.This would be the first such collaborative DNA archive of its kind.