LAU geneticist’s quest for the Phoenicians makes headlines
Media coverage of Dr. Pierre Zalloua’s discovery of a Phoenician gene brings LAU to international attention.
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LAU scientist Dr. Pierre Zalloua, who discovered a genetic signature unique to the lost Phoenician civilization and used it to trace its descendants, appeared on the international television news channel CNN earlier this month to present his latest findings.
Zalloua, assistant dean for Research at LAU’s School of Medicine, attracted media attention from around the world when he discovered that one in 17 men living in the Mediterranean carried Phoenician genes, indicating that the descendants of the “lost” civilization were alive and well.
The disappearance of the Phoenicians, who built an advanced civilization 3,000 years ago, had been regarded as one of the great mysteries of the Mediterranean.
Zalloua’s work was carried out under the auspices of the Genographic Project, an ambitious partnership between the National Geographic Society and the IBM Corporation that aims to trace the history of human migration using genetics.
The five-year project, launched in 2005, brings together teams of renowned scientists from all over the world. Zalloua serves as the principal investigator for the MENA region.
His research involved gathering DNA samples from countries around the Mediterranean through thousands of cheek swabs and blood draws. By analyzing the collected material with a team of LAU students on the Byblos campus, Zalloua was able to build a genetic picture of the region. This showed that people living in former Phoenician trading posts possessed a genetic signature that was absent in places the ancient mariners hadn’t been.
These people “were here, and are still here, in numbers,” Zalloua says, adding that “one in 17 men in the Mediterranean is not a small matter.”
Zalloua says that it was the lack of solid information available about the ancient seafarers that attracted him to the project. “We don’t know much about the Phoenicians. We just know they were here,” he says. “I’m Lebanese and I’m interested in my history. So why not study this enigmatic part of our civilization?”
He says that without the research done by historians, he wouldn’t have been able to carry out his study. “We knew from history books where they went and where they didn’t go. This was instrumental to our mission being successful. Without the history we couldn’t do the science,” he says.
In line with LAU’s commitment to working with the local community, Zalloua says he is delighted that his findings have contributed to a greater understanding of Lebanon’s history.
“We are doing science that relates to us here,” he says.
The result of this was an enormous appetite by local people to get involved in the study. “We have had hundreds, if not thousands, of people call the [Byblos] lab and say they were interested in taking part in this research effort,” he says.
Besides attracting the attention of locals and the media, including the BBC and the New York Times, Zalloua’s discovery has also been hailed by the scientific community.
The American Journal of Human Genetics, the foremost publication of its kind, featured his work prominently, cementing his reputation as one of the world’s premier geneticists.
Despite making headlines around the world, Zalloua’s research is not yet complete. “We are going to be doing more of the same to try to uncover our history through our genes,” he says. He’s planning to collect DNA samples on the Beirut campus in mid-spring.
To learn more about Zalloua’s study, read this article in the LAU Magazine and Alumni Bulletin. You can also watch his interview on CNN’s monthly Inside the Middle East program.