May 2005, Vol. 6 No. 6
Staff Profile: Henry Matthews
Chronicle of Higher Education to Feature AUB in a Series of Stories
In the Memory of Nurse Mazen El Zahabi
Two New Appointments at the Office of Financial Planning
AUB Book Club Celebrates First Anniversary
Women’s League Elects New Board
Graduate Education Students Present Research Results
Technical Problems Mar Drama Club’s Newest Productions
All-Female Cast Stars in Richard II Play Reading
Book Review: Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings by Muhammad Ali Khalidi
Custodial Services Workshop Promotes Health, Safety, and Cleanliness
An Artist Explores His Arab Roots
Whether or not the Lebanese were originally Phoenician has been a topic of controversy for decades. During the Lebanese civil war the issue generated a major disagreement between the different Lebanese factions, and even with the end of the war any talk of it can still provoke substantial tension. Now, maybe Dr. Pierre Zalloua, member of the Population Genetics Program at the Harvard School of Public Health and assistant professor at the AUB Faculty of Medicine, can apply the results of his research in the field of population genetics to produce some objective scientific evidence to resolve the issue.
It has long been believed that the “Phoenician” strain is present in the genetic constitution of most peoples of the Mediterranean region, including the Lebanese. On that basis, Zalloua has been undertaking, with his colleague Spencer Wells, a genetic study that is trying to determine the extent of Phoenician origins in the DNA of the Lebanese and some other populations along the Mediterranean Sea.
Dr. Zalloua came up with the idea of conducting a genetic study on males from Lebanon and some other Mediterranean countries in September 2003. A year later, after receiving a research grant of $50,000 from the National Geographic, the work began. The primary
aim of the study was to trace the movement and existing presence of the Phoenician genetic constitution in the peoples of the Mediterranean coast.
Because of his experience in and close connection to the Phoenician genographic project, Zalloua was then asked to participate in a much bigger multimillion-dollar global genographic project, which is being funded principally by National Geographic and IBM. This genetic study, which will incorporate the entire world, was officially launched in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2005, and will entail installing ten bases of research around the world.
Lebanon, through the AUB Medical Center, was chosen as the center for genetic studies on the indigenous populations of the Middle East and North Africa and Pierre Zalloua was selected at its head. As he explains it, the global genographic project will look into population migration throughout history and the world. “Human history can also be traced through genes,” he says.
Zalloua believes the worldwide project will benefit AUB in many ways. “AUB is the project’s only representative in the Middle East and North Africa and consequently will receive substantial publicity as such. The project will hold its general meetings at AUB, and the University will also receive publicity through the publications we expect to issue. In addition, many post-docs, scientists, and research assistants in the field of genetics will come to AUB to participate in the work.”
Dr. Zalloua has a personal connection to both the Phoenician study and the world genographic project. “I am a geneticist who loves history,” he says. “When the field of population genetics came to light I thought that studying the Phoenician genetic strain among the Lebanese would be a pertinent topic; it would speak to me and to all the Lebanese who are seeking to resolve some of their differences. The fact is that in Lebanon there are no physical differences, and the genetic composition of the people proves that….Still, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the Phoenicians. Where did they disappear? Can we find them in places that are not mentioned in historical literature? With the results of our research,
I hope to expand our knowledge and go beyond what history tells us.”
Work on the Phoenician project is in its final stages. “I received up to 1,600 DNA samples. After the NG published a feature article on the project in its October 2004 issue and also produced a documentary, I started receiving even more DNA donations. We treat the DNA samples with utmost confidentiality. We only use them for research purposes and destroy them upon the demand of the donator,” explains Dr. Zalloua.
When asked about interdisciplinary help, such as the aid of archaeologists and historians, Dr. Zalloua had to admit that he was disappointed in the lack of cooperation he received from the archaeologists in Lebanon. “They did not believe in our cause, that we are all one or at least have a common ancestral background, and hence, should not fight about that.” Zalloua and Wells had to go to the Turkey National Museum to get DNA samples from a Phoenician sarcophagus, since Lebanon’s National Museum denied their request for a sample.
Zalloua’s academic and professional accomplishments in genetics and molecular biology might give the impression that he is a man who has little time for hobbies or a personal life. Far from the truth. Zalloua is married and has two daughters to whom he is deeply attached. And he is a man who prefers to diversify his life. He likes to paint and experiment with colors, reads history books extensively, and frequently takes walks across the campus to contemplate the marvelous view of the sea.