Genes that helped our Arabian ancestors to survive could now be killing us

Wed, 2020-03-25 20:29

LONDON: Researchers in Kuwait have identified a section of DNA
that once helped nomadic inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula
survive the harsh conditions there, but now is believed to be
partly responsible for high rates of diabetes and obesity across
the Middle East.
The research suggests that lack of exercise and a bad diet are not
the only reasons for the prevalence of metabolic disorders in the
region — genetic factors also play a part.
The study, by the Dasman Diabetes Institute (DDI) in Kuwait,
examined more than 600,000 genetic variations in the DNA of
hundreds of Kuwaitis. The scientists found multiple areas of DNA
associated with health problems, such as hypertension and diabetes,
that had evolved over generations.
The findings, recently published in the Genome Biology and
Evolution journal, lead the researchers to believe that a genetic
adaption that helped the Kuwaitis’ ancestors survive as hunter
gatherers in the extreme desert environment is now partly
responsible for a health crisis in modern populations.
“The theory was that there must be something very different in
the genetic makeup that protected (the ancestors) from the weather,
a lack of food and made their metabolism extremely low,” said
Prof. Fahd Al-Mulla, DDI’s chief scientific officer and senior
author of the study.

Dasman Diabetes Institute (DDI) is a Kuwaiti-based medical research
center which works to prevent and treat diabetes and related
conditions in Kuwait through various research, training, education
and health promotion programs. (Supplied)

“This is fine if you live in hot weather and if you do not
have a lot of food but this gene becomes a killer if you have
plenty of food to eat, you sit in the air conditioning, and you
change your environment.”
The genetic variations highlighted by the study were found in and
around the TNKS gene, which is associated with hypertension,
obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Kuwait has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world; about
40 percent of the population is overweight. Other Gulf countries
are not far behind, and their populations are plagued by rising
levels of associated disorders, including diabetes and
While modern sedentary lifestyles are often blamed for this, and
clearly are a factor, the study uncovers the detrimental effects of
ancestral genetic adaptation on the health of present-day
“Our research spots the regions of the genome that might have
induced active metabolism and hypertension in nomadic Kuwaiti
forefathers, which may favor survival in harsh environments,”
said Dr. Eaaswar Muthukrishna, a genetics and bioinformatics expert
at DDI.
He added that the study was the first “comprehensive analysis to
detect natural selection in the Arabian Peninsula’s
Al-Mulla said the discovery was important not only for raising
awareness of the health risks, but also to help identify vulnerable
children and advise their parents on how to ensure they do not
overeat and increase the chances of developing metabolic
Along with sounding a health alert for modern populations, the
research also sheds light on migration and environmental changes in
the region.

“The Arabian Peninsula has experienced several waves of
migrations, despite its extreme and varying environmental
conditions,” the authors of the study note. “And these
inhabitants eventually adapted to the hot and dry environment.
“Archaeological evidence suggests the Arabian Peninsula played a
key role during the dispersal of modern humans out of
Africa….therefore, the resident populations have a long and
complex evolutionary history.”
Most of the ancestors of modern-day Kuwaitis were early settlers
that migrated from Saudi Arabia and depended on fishing, pearl
diving and seafaring as their main sources of income.
“Our previous studies revealed that the genetic structure of the
Kuwait population is heterogeneous (diverse), comprising three
distinct ancestral genetic backgrounds that could be linked roughly
to contemporary Saudi Arabian, Persian and Bedouin populations,”
according to the study.
Muthukrishna said the team is expanding its study to examine
Arabian populations in Oman, Yemen, and the UAE.
“We are analyzing those data sets to see what is the pattern that
exists in the Arabian Peninsula,” he said, adding that the study,
which is underway, will also dig deeper into the Saudi

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Source: *FS – All – Science News Net
Genes that helped our Arabian ancestors to survive could now be killing us