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.


South Asian marriage websites under fire for color bias

Updated 12 July 2020

South Asian marriage websites under fire for color bias

DHAHRAN: An online backlash has forced the matrimonial website Shaadi.com to take down an ‘skin color’ filter which asked users to specify their skin color using descriptors such as fair, wheatish or dark. The filter on the popular site, which caters to the South Asian diaspora, was one of the parameters for matching prospective partners.

Meghan Nagpal, a Toronto-based graduate student, logged on to the website and was appalled to see the skin-color filter. “Why should I support such archaic view [in 2020]?” she told Arab News.

Nagpal cited further examples of implicit biases against skin color in the diaspora communities – women who are dark-skinned are never acknowledged as “beautiful” or how light-skinned South Asian women who are mistaken as Caucasian consider it a compliment.

“Such biases stem from a history of colonization and the mentality that ‘white is superior’,” she said.

When Nagpal emailed the website’s customer service team, she received the response that “this is what most parents require.” She shared her experience on a Facebook group, attracting the attention of Florida-based Roshni Patel and Dallas-based Hetal Lakhani. The former took to online activism by tweeting the company and the latter started an online petition.

Overnight, the petition garnered more 1,500 signatures and the site eventually removed the filter.

“Now is the time to re-evaluate what we consider beautiful. Colorism has significant consequences in our community, especially for women. People with darker skin experience greater prejudice, violence, bullying and social sanctions,” the petition reads. “The idea that fairer skin is ‘good’ and darker skin is ‘bad’ is completely irrational. Not only is it untrue, but it is an entirely socially constructed perception based in neo-colonialism and casteism, which has no place in the 21st century.”

Overnight, the petition garnered more 1,500 signatures and the site eventually removed the filter.

“When a user highlighted this, we were thankful and had the remnants removed immediately. We do not discriminate based on skin color and our member base is as diverse and pluralistic as the world,” a spokesperson said.

“If one company starts a movement like this, it can change minds and perceptions. This is a step in the right direction,” said Nagpal. Soon after, Shaadi.com’s competitor Jeevansathi.com also took down the skin filter from its website.

Colorism and bias in matrimony is only one issue; prejudices are deeply ingrained and widespread across society. Dr. Sarah Rasmi, a Dubai-based psychologist, highlights research and observations on how light skin is an advantage in society.

The website took down the skin filter following backlash.

“Dark skin tends to have lower socio-economic status and, in the US justice system, has been found to get harsher and more punitive sentences.

“These biases for fair as opposed to dark skin comes from colonial prejudices and the idea that historically, light skin has been associated with privilege, power and superiority,” she said.

However, in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter protests, change is underway.

Last month, Johnson & Johnson announced that it will be discontinuing its skin whitening creams in Asian and Middle Eastern markets, and earlier this month Hindustan Unilever Limited (Unilever’s Indian subsidiary) announced that it will remove the words ‘fair, white and light’ from its products and marketing. To promote an inclusive standard of beauty, it has also renamed its flagship Fair & Lovely product line to Glow & Lovely.

“Brands have to move away from these standards of beauty and be more inclusive so that people – regardless of their color, size, shape or gender – can find a role model that looks like them in the mass media,” said Dr. Rasmi.