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

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The groundbreaking study by Prof. Fahd Al-Mulla (L), DDI’s chief scientific officer and senior author of the study and Dr. Eaaswar Muthukrishna, a genetics and bioinformatics expert at DDI, was published in the Oxford Genome Biology and Evolution journal. (Supplied)
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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)
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Updated 25 March 2020

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

  • Researchers find genetic traits that evolved to cope with extreme heat and scarce food are dangerous when we have plenty to eat and air conditioning
  • When combined with increasingly sedentary lifestyles, the adaptations increase risk of obesity and metabolic disorders such as diabetes

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 hypertension.
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 Kuwaitis.
“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 population.”
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 disorders.
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 population.


Review: ‘Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project’ – who is it for?

‘Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project’ premiered in April. Supplied
Updated 27 min 58 sec ago

Review: ‘Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project’ – who is it for?

CHENNAI: Kim Kardashian West’s documentary about her work as a criminal-justice advocate was released this week — sparking both amusement and applause online.

“Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project,” which is streaming on Oxygen, follows Kardashian as she fights for the release of Alice Marie Johnson, a single mother who became a drug mule out of necessity and was given a sentence of life plus 25 years in the early 1990s.

The camera captures the reality star telling a group of prisoners, “I just saw something that seemed really unfair to me and I thought that I had a voice.”

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Back in July, I visited the Correctional Treatment Facility in Washington D.C. to discuss the Georgetown Prison Scholars program with Dr. @marcmhoward. Recently, I spoke to Dr. Marc as he teaches his course at Georgetown University. I seen a few familiar faces that were recently released from prison. They all spent over two decades in prison and they were also on the chat speaking to students as Dr. Marc teaches his course. Their names are Momolu Stewart, Halim Flowers & Roy Middleton. This makes me so happy to see them recently released from prison doing such great things. I can’t wait for you guys to watch my documentary, to get a better understanding of the justice system and see what it’s like for someone like these men to get a second chance at life after prison. Tune-in to my 2-Hour documentary #KKWTheJusticeProject this Sunday, April 5th at 7/6c on @oxygen.

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Justice is a part of the whole endeavor, but in the documentary Kardashian comes first. The film concentrates on her efforts to educate herself on the law and prisoners are used as emotional camera bait, with the star appearing every so often to make comments like “her story broke my heart” about various cases. But what if a case were not to move the star emotionally? Would it also merit her attention? Only time will tell.

The documentary highlights harrowing cases — a woman raped by her step-grandfather who eventually kills him and another who is not protected by sex trafficking laws and is tried as an adult despite being just 15.

Viewers could be left frustrated by Kardashian’s sometimes naïve approach — “even seeing her, you could see how sweet and quiet and maybe easily influenced she could have been as a child,” she says in one scene for example.

There is also sneaking suspicion that Kardashian, however much her concern for the incarcerated men and women may be, is looking for some kind of publicity for her own achievements. A certain lack of selflessness appears to be missing here — the constant flash of cameras as Johnson declares she was granted clemency by US President Donald Trump, after Kardashian met with him in 2018, does leave a bitter taste — but on the flipside, perhaps this is exactly the kind of exposure these incarcerated men and women need?

In the end, we wonder whether the documentary – which was nicely edited at two hours-long – is for the prisoners or for Kardashian herself.