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date: 24 June 2017

Population Studies and Genetics in Mexico during the Cold War

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.

After World War II, human genetics as a medical field developed new techniques and practices intended not only to characterize but also to understand variation differences among populations and their relation to the presence of certain diseases. It was transformed from a medical backwater to an appealing medical research frontier. It was precisely during the Cold War that scientists hosted, disseminated, and consolidated the emerging model of human genetics in the clinic and in the field. The emergence of human genetics in post-war Mexico (1945–1970) involved the transnational circulation of knowledge, people, and practices, and the institutions that enabled their consolidation in the country. Population genetics was the first branch of human genetics developed in Mexico. The first study, on the distribution of genetic markers in the Mexican Mestizo and Indian populations in the 1950s, was followed, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, by studies to characterize the genetic composition of the Mexican population by the groups headed by Mexican physicians Rubén Lisker, at the National Institute of Nutrition, and Alfonso León de Garay, at the National Commission of Nuclear Energy. These studies were aligned with other laboratories in other parts of the world using molecular tracers and more up-to-date electrophoresis techniques to measure the genetic variability of Mexican indigenous populations. Following the 1960s trend and technologies, they focused on enzymes and other blood components, like the deficiency of the glucose-6-phosphate-dehydrogenase (D6PD) and the presence of abnormal hemoglobins and albumins in Mexican indigenous population.