By June 2009, Ang was on his way, joined by health workers who handed out material on malaria, dengue, and other ills.
He spoke to the various tribes in his native Malay, which for them was a second language, carefully explaining the goals of the work. Besides collecting DNA, Ang also measured their skin color with a small device like a flash camera, which gauges the light reflected off a person's skin.
Sometimes, Ang had to wait a few days for a messenger to go out and summon hunters back to the village, so he showed movies to others in the meantime. It was also a way to alert the men that something was up in the village, as some were near enough to hear his sound system.
One movie was 1980's The Gods Must Be Crazy, about an African bushman's contact with modern society -- an apt choice. Others included Legally Blonde and one about the Monkey King, a character from Chinese folklore.
Race and skin pigment are sensitive issues across the world, Malaysia included. The fact that Ang was a native, coupled with his respectful demeanor, was a big help. "The idea that we were going to research people's skin color could've been a real no-no if handled in the wrong way," Oppenheimer said.
Ang brought back the precious vials of blood, keeping them cool by stopping at restaurants along the way to replenish his supply of ice.
Now at Penn State, he and Cheng seek to learn which genes make a difference, by testing them in the zebrafish.
In the lab, hundreds of the small, striped fish are zipping back and forth in tanks, some darker, some lighter, some in-between.
Scientists have used many animal "models" to study genetics -- mice, worms, fruit flies. Cheng is partial to the fish because like humans, they are vertebrates, yet they are quick to reproduce and their skin color is evident within two days of hatching.
Once they identify the mutation or mutations that are the key to Asian skin, it can be traced back to see when it originated, and how it matches archaeological evidence of human migration.
And then there is the question of skin cancer, and why Asians are not prone to it. The answer likely has to do with melanin, the pigment that protects the nucleus of skin cells. It comes in different forms, and its granules are distributed differently in people depending on skin color, said Murray Brilliant, director of the Center for Human Genetics at the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin, who has been following Cheng's work.
"It's a fantastic and important study," Brilliant said.
Cheng, a rare scientist who is equally at home in the lab and in explaining his work to the public, has drawn notice for his work on skin color before.
In 2005, he and colleagues discovered a single mutation that was responsible for a large part of the difference in skin color between black and white people. He found that a physical trait responsible for no small amount of historical prejudice and misunderstanding, in other words, was caused largely by the merest of genetic quirks -- a change in one DNA base pair out of three billion.
Brilliant invited Cheng to discuss the work in a public lecture at the University of Arizona. And Cheng, an accomplished pianist, chose to supplement his talk by performing selections from Bach's Goldberg Variations.
Drawing inspiration from his idol, famed pianist Glenn Gould, Cheng spoke of how the music was like science, with many threads merging into a melodious whole.
"It's trained me to parallel-process a lot more," Cheng says of his music. "You actually have to keep track of different voices at once."
And if the DNA from Malaysia reveal their secret, Cheng will shed light on the different voices, and colors, of humanity too.
Most Popular Stories
- NSA Defends Global Cellphone Tracking Legality
- Top Websites for U.S. Hispanics
- Ad Counts Rise in 2013 for Hispanic Magazines
- Networks Vie for U.S. Hispanic TV Viewers
- Saab Gets Back into the Game; U.S. Auto Sales Soar
- Apple Activates Customer-Tracking iBeacon
- Dell Offers Undisclosed Number of Employee Buyouts
- 2013 Tech Gift Guide: iPad Mini Still Hot; Chromecast a Great Low-Cost Option
- A Biography of Jonathan Ive, Apple's Creative Chief
- Authorities Close to Deal with JPMorgan Chase over Madoff Response