People of African descent are poorly represented in genetic studies. A new effort would change that. Scientists plan to collect genetic material from 500,000 people of African descent to create what they believe will be the world's largest database of population genomic information.

The hope is to build a new “reference genome” – a model to compare to complete sets of individuals’ DNA – and better understand the genetic variants that affect Black people. This could eventually translate into new drugs and diagnostic tests – and help reduce health disparities.

The initiative was launched Wednesday by Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, along with the Regeneron Genetics Center, AstraZeneca, Novo Nordisk and Roche.

Pharmaceutical companies are providing the funding, while the data will be managed by a nonprofit launched by Meharry, called the Diaspora Human Genomics Institute.

Less than 2% of genetic information studied comes from people of African descent Organizers said the project was clearly needed, pointing to research showing that less than 2 percent of genetic information studied today comes from people of African descent.

“We are going to close this gap, and this is just the beginning,” said Anil Shanker, senior vice president of research and innovation at Meharry.

Scientists have long known that the benchmark they compare to individual genomes is based primarily on the genetic material of a single man and does not reflect the spectrum of human diversity.

Although two people's genomes – that is, a set of instructions for building and maintaining a human being – are more than 99% identical, scientists say they want to understand the differences.

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