BACKGROUND - The role of race in human genetics and biomedical research is among the most contested issues in science. Much debate centers on the relative importance of genetic versus sociocultural factors in explaining racial inequalities in health. However, few studies integrate genetic and sociocultural data to test competing explanations directly.
METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS - We draw on ethnographic, epidemiologic, and genetic data collected in Southeastern Puerto Rico to isolate two distinct variables for which race is often used as a proxy: genetic ancestry versus social classification. We show that color, an aspect of social classification based on the culturally defined meaning of race in Puerto Rico, better predicts blood pressure than does a genetic-based estimate of continental ancestry. We also find that incorporating sociocultural variables reveals a new and significant association between a candidate gene polymorphism for hypertension (alpha(2C) adrenergic receptor deletion) and blood pressure.
CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE - This study addresses the recognized need to measure both genetic and sociocultural factors in research on racial inequalities in health. Our preliminary results provide the most direct evidence to date that previously reported associations between genetic ancestry and health may be attributable to sociocultural factors related to race and racism, rather than to functional genetic differences between racially defined groups. Our results also imply that including sociocultural variables in future research may improve our ability to detect significant allele-phenotype associations. Thus, measuring sociocultural factors related to race may both empower future genetic association studies and help to clarify the biological consequences of social inequalities.