<figcaption>Tunisians (above) come from an interesting gene pool. Credit: wikimedia.org</figcaption>
Tunisians (above) come from an interesting gene pool. Credit: wikimedia.org

In the 1960s, Habiba Chaabouni was one of a handful of women enrolled in medical school in Tunisia. There, she often met families with two or three sick children. "There was a lot of chronic disease," she recalls, and she wanted to find out why.

In some ways, Tunisia is a geneticist's paradise. The native population primarily derives from the Arab-Berber ethnic group, which favors frequent consanguineous marriages (still around one-third of unions), resulting in a host of genetic diseases including thalassemia, mental retardation, and birth defects. The country borders Algeria, Libya, and the Mediterranean, and juts out toward Sicily, so it has been infiltrated by a succession of diverse nations: the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, and the French. All of this paints an interesting genetic picture.

It wasn't an easy one to analyze. When Chaabouni graduated from medical school, there...

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