He has won the Nobel Peace Prize, campaigned for human rights and bared his soul in truth and reconciliation. Now Desmond Tutu has given something else to humanity: his genome.
Archbishop Tutu (78) has allowed scientists to decode his entire genetic make-up and to post it on the internet as part of a project to document the immense variety of DNA sequences that constitute the human species.
Tutu was chosen because he is a typical ethnic representative of the majority South African population who speak one of the Bantu group of languages.
His genome was decoded with those of three other southern Africans belonging to the Kalahari desert Bushmen, or San people.
Whereas Bantu South Africans migrated to southern Africa over many centuries from west Africa, the Bushmen of the Kalahari have lived in the region for tens of thousands of years — so they represent one of the oldest-living distinct groups of human beings.
Scientists said a comparison of the full genomes shows the continent's enormous range of genetic diversity.
The study, published in the journal Nature, found that there is more genetic diversity between the southern Africans than between typical non-Africans from different parts of the world. This genetic diversity is testament to the continent's long period of human evolution.
“The indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples of southern Africa are believed to be the oldest known lineage of modern humans,” said Vanessa Hayes of the University of New South Wales, a co-leader of the study. “This research provides us with the tools to read the story of human evolution and, specifically, the story of disease evolution. It has been well established that the African continent is the cradle of civilization, and therefore the origin of disease; we just haven't known to what extent.”