Who is the Filipino, genomically speaking?

| Written by Arlyn VCD Palisoc Romualdo

This is what the Philippine Genome Center (PGC) is trying to find out. One of its key research initiatives is piecing together Filipino genomic identity and history.


Speakers and participants in the Philippine Genome Center’s “The Story of the Filipino through the Genomics Lens.” (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)


In its first forum for 2020, PGC gathered resource persons to help tell “The Story of the Filipino through the Genomics Lens” on January 31 at the Institute of Biology Auditorium, UP Diliman (UPD). With references from relics of the past to present day practice, from human to poultry DNA, the event featured different approaches to exploring who the Filipino is.


Dr. Armand Mijares kicks off the forum with “Homo luzonensis and Advancement in Human Evolutionary Debate.” (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)


Dr. Armand Mijares talked about his team’s discovery of Homo luzonensis and what it meant for human evolution. Dr. Michael James Herrera shared his ongoing study on human mobility using chickens as “bio-proxies”. Both are from the Archaeological Studies Program, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, UPD.

On human genetics, Dr. Maria Corazon De Ungria and Jazelyn Salvador briefly described their research on the genetics of Mangyans in Mindoro and of Philippine Negritos, respectively. They are both from the DNA Analysis Laboratory (DAL), Natural Sciences Research Institute, College of Science, UPD. Meanwhile, Prof. Jae Joseph Russell Rodriguez of the Institute of Biological Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, UP Los Baños, also in collaboration with DAL, discussed his investigation into the human genetic history of the Sulu Archipelago.


The morning open forum with, from left, Jazelyn Salvador, Dr. Maria Corazon De Ungria, Dr. Armand Mijares, Prof. Jae Joseph Russell Rodriguez, and Dr. Michael James Herrera (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)


Talking about the bigger picture, DAL’s Frederick Delfin highlighted the importance of the Filipino Genomes Research Program to making human genomics research more inclusive. Corollary to this, UP Manila National Institutes Health (NIH) Director Eva Maria Cutiongco-dela Paz emphasized the need for a non-European reference sequence in human genetic studies to account for inter-ethnic variability. This is especially crucial to making medical treatment more precise and effective, not just for Filipinos but for underrepresented populations as well.


The afternoon open forum with, from left, Norman King, Prof. Edlyn Jimenez, Dr. Mary Jane Louise Bolunia, Dr. Eva Maria Cutiongco-dela Paz, Prof. Fatima Alvarez Castillo, Atty. Gibran Abubakar, and Frederick Delfin (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)


Ethics in research elicited an animated discussion at the event, especially in studies concerning indigenous peoples, whether scientific or cultural. There was a clamor from those present for stricter and a more harmonized and streamlined implementation of rules among concerned government units, such as local governments, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP), and the Philippine Health Research Ethics Board (PHREB), among others.

Resource persons on the subject of ethical research included: Prof. Edlyn Jimenez of NIH, PHREB Chair Leonardo De Castro, Atty. Gibran Abubakar of NCIP, NM’s Dr. Mary Jane Louise Bolunia, and Social Inquiry and Building Capacities for Research, Inc. President Fatima Alvarez Castillo.


Norman King ends the series of presentations in the PGC gathering. (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)


A UP alumnus and now a faculty member of Pampanga State Agricultural University, Norman King, closed the series of talks and presentations with the discussion of his Ayta tribe’s dynamics in hunting wild pig. Even as he presented a cultural perspective from experience, he asked the scientists present, “Is there something in our tribe’s genes that dictates our abilities?”