How scientists are drawing a genetic portrait of modern-day Middle Easterners

A woman looks at a bronze age skull from Jericho, dated to between 2200 and 2000 BCE, showing the ancient surgical procedure of trephination. (AFP)
A woman looks at a bronze age skull from Jericho, dated to between 2200 and 2000 BCE, showing the ancient surgical procedure of trephination. (AFP)
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Updated 30 August 2021

How scientists are drawing a genetic portrait of modern-day Middle Easterners

A woman looks at a bronze age skull from Jericho, dated to between 2200 and 2000 BCE, showing the ancient surgical procedure of trephination. (AFP)
  • Team comprising Saudi, UAE and UK scientists are mapping the region’s genetic heritage and health
  • Findings are critical to understanding present-day gene pool and planning for future health needs

DUBAI: Genetic analysis has become immensely popular in recent years, with a plethora of commercial home testing kits allowing families to trace their ancestry back over generations and to map out their genetic origins with remarkable accuracy.

Yet, beyond satisfying the public’s anthropological appetites, genetic analysis has important medical applications, chief among them being the treatment and prevention of inherited genetic diseases.

Take the Middle East.

The genetic origins of modern-day Middle Easterners have always been something of a mystery. Until now, more was probably known about the region’s migratory routes and ethnic mixing down the ages from cuneiform tablets than from the double helix. 

Three years ago, for the first time ever, scientists from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the UK teamed up to map the Middle East’s genetic heritage and health stretching back 125,000 years.

The researchers uncovered millions of novel genetic variants that are common to the region but considered rare elsewhere in the world. The knowledge gained in the process enabled the analysis of local genomic structures in immense detail for the first time.




German and Kurdish archaeologists uncover the skeleton remains of a woman thought to date from the Hellenistic period (323 BC to 31 BC) near the northern Iraqi city of Duhok. (AN Photo/Robert Edwards)

The project’s findings, which were published in the scientific journal Cell on August 4, represent the first comprehensive open-access dataset in the Middle East mapping the whole human genome. 

“The Middle East was always underrepresented in these studies,” said Saeed Al-Turki, a Saudi consultant in clinical genomics at Anwa Labs in Riyadh, who took part in “The Genomic History of the Middle East” study. 

“We started to feel that huge discoveries were being made that could actually have a population-specific impact, and the Middle East was always missing, so this was the major drive for the study.”

Launched in partnership with the UK’s University of Birmingham and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, a British non-profit genomics and genetics research institute based near Cambridge, the study marked a crucial first step in filling the blanks in the region’s genetic history. 

“The Middle East is a very important region that has a unique history compared to other local populations,” Dr Mohamed Almarri, the study’s lead author and a Wellcome Sanger Institute alumnus based in the UAE, told Arab News.

“The underrepresentation limits our understanding of the genomics and the implications of disease on these populations, so we wanted to fill those gaps that we see in the literature.”




A lab worker prepares liquids for DNA extraction. (AFP)

Researchers analyzed DNA from hundreds of people across the region to reconstruct their genetic heritage. What they found was that many people in the modern-day Arabian Peninsula draw their genetic ancestry from ancient hunter-gatherers and from regional Bronze Age civilizations. 

Going back even further, this ethnic lineage draws its origins from an enigmatic population that left Africa around 60,000 years ago and which differs in significant ways from all other Eurasian genomes. 

The findings hold intrinsic historical and medical value, allowing experts to understand the effects of migration on the Arabian Peninsula, and what genetic traits its peoples hold in common. 

“For the medical impact, the more data we have from populations, the more we understand why some populations are more at risk to common diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes and others,” Al-Turki told Arab News. 




Saeed Al-Turki, a Saudi consultant in clinical genomics at Anwa Labs in Riyadh, taking part in “The Genomic History of the Middle East” study. (Supplied)

One of the most significant findings of the study was the discovery of a quarter of a million single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, that were highly specific to the people of the Middle East.

“So all those previous studies that involved someone from the Middle East could have a bit of an incomplete picture,” Al-Turki said. “By adding another quarter of a million SNPs from just 130 individuals — imagine if we had 1,000 or 2,000. 

“We are actually enriching the biomarkers, and that’s what leads to the discovery of what gives some populations a higher risk of contracting a certain disease.”

FASTFACTS

* Populations all over the Middle East grew at a similar rate until around 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.

* Aridification linked to climate change events coincided with a reduction in Arabian populations 6,000 years ago.

* A mutation that allowed people to digest lactose was found in genomes local to Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the UAE.

The study uncovered genetic variations associated with type 2 diabetes, challenging earlier assumptions that high rates of the condition in the Middle East were caused solely by the shift towards sedentary lifestyles. 

Another mutation related to body mass index and the proclivity of hypertension was also found in 60 percent of Saudis and Yemenis — a figure that has long been missing from global health datasets. 

“Without this project, we would not be able to understand why some of these populations are more prone to having one of the highest rates of type 2 diabetes in the world,” Al-Turki said. 

“Yes, it’s related to the environment, fitness and a sedentary lifestyle, but there is also evidence of very strong genetic components that come with it, which means we should work out and be more health conscious than other populations. 

“We inherited some genetic components. It’s not all bad nor good, but it’s good to be conscious about what extra steps are needed once we understand what we have.”




The study uncovered genetic variations associated with type 2 diabetes, challenging earlier assumptions that high rates of the condition in the Middle East were caused solely by the shift towards sedentary lifestyles. (Shutterstock)

Based on a mapping of genomic movement, the study concluded that Bronze Age peoples from the Levant or Mesopotamia likely spread Semitic languages to Arabia and East Africa. 

Moreover, they discovered that populations all over the Middle East grew at a similar rate until around 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, when the Arabian population growth stalled while Levantine populations continued to grow. 

This trend was attributed to the emergence of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, leading to settled societies supporting much larger populations. 

The study also noted that aridification linked to climate change events coincided with a reduction in Arabian populations 6,000 years ago and a fall in Levantine populations 4,200 years ago.

A distinct mutation which allowed people to digest lactose was found in genomes local to modern-day Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the UAE, with a probable attribution to the domestication of animals providing a source of dairy. 

Although they have merely scratched the surface of the Middle East’s genetic heritage, the findings of the project are critical to understanding the present-day gene pool and what regional nations can do to plan for future health needs. 




Famous prehistoric rock paintings of Tassili N'Ajjer, Algeria. (Shutterstock)

Almarri, the study’s lead author, hopes to delve even deeper into the region’s genetic past. 

“Our region remains to be understood,” he told Arab News. “Every person in the future will have a tailored treatment for any disease that they have, and we need researchers from the region to investigate this in our populations.”

More regional collaboration will be needed, drawing together hospitals and universities, to identify the link between genetic mutations and specific diseases and to usher the Middle East toward an age of genetics-informed medicine. 

“There is so much work done in separate organizations in the Gulf and in the Middle East,” Al-Turki said. “They’re usually not published in high-ranking journals like Cell because they are a single population. 

“This is an example of how much higher we can go in the quality of research once we collaborate with different countries. We cannot do it alone. 

“It is only when we collaborate with others that we can actually be a part of the bigger picture.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek 


As economic crisis bites, Lebanese army withdraws soldiers from Beirut suburbs

As economic crisis bites, Lebanese army withdraws soldiers from Beirut suburbs
Updated 11 sec ago

As economic crisis bites, Lebanese army withdraws soldiers from Beirut suburbs

As economic crisis bites, Lebanese army withdraws soldiers from Beirut suburbs
  • The military has been struggling due to Lebanon’s economic meltdown

BEIRUT: The Lebanese army has ‘redeployed’ soldiers away from several regions, notably Beirut’s southern suburbs, with its command saying in a statement that the redeployment is intended “to reduce the economic burdens on the army.”

The military has been struggling due to Lebanon’s economic meltdown. In his notorious speech in March, Joseph Aoun, commander of the Lebanese Army, said: “Soldiers are struggling like other people; a soldier’s salary has lost its value and soldiers are going hungry like others.”

Aoun, who is currently visiting Turkey, met with his Turkish counterpart and other officials on Friday and requested logistical support, including equipment and machinery.

He will also visit Washington at the end of September to ask for direct American aid and promises of military assistance for the Lebanese army.

In recent months, some soldiers have deserted as the depreciation of the Lebanese pound has seen the relative value of their salaries plummet to the equivalent of $60 per month. Army command claims the number of deserters is “limited.”

Residents of the Lebanese capital’s southern suburbs were surprised when the army withdrew its forces from checkpoints in the area. Soldiers have been deployed there since 2013, when the suburbs were targeted by bombings that were blamed on Daesh, and seen as connected to the war in Syria and Hezbollah’s interference in the interests of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Lebanese army command stressed on Friday that its troops would “continue to set up observation points in all areas, work on patrols, and carry out security missions.”

Meanwhile, dozens of families of victims of the August 2020 explosion in Beirut Port gathered in the capital to protest against the political pressure being placed on Judge Tarek Bitar, who is leading the investigation into the blast.

Bitar was recently threatened by Hezbollah and, on Friday, the attorney representing Nohad Machnouk, the former interior minister who is accused in the case, filed a request to dismiss Bitar from the investigation.

If Bitar were to be dismissed from the case, he would be the second judge to have been removed from the investigation. Like his predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, Bitar has issued a subpoena for a former prime minister, ministers and security officials in connection with the explosion..

Machnouk visited Dar Al-Fatwa — Lebanon’s highest Sunni authority — and gave a speech there in which he claimed that Bitar “takes his orders from” Salim Jreissati, a member of the Free Patriotic Movement led by Gebran Bassil and an advisor to Lebanese President Michael Aoun, Bassil’s father-in-law.

Machnouk warned against summoning former Prime Minister Hassan Diab — also accused in the case — based on a subpoena Bitar issued after Diab failed to show up for questioning. He said Bitar is implementing “a political agenda, away from the constitution, law and logic.”

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has also previously accused Bitar of being “politicized.”

Former minister Youssef Fenianos — another accused in the case — has requested that the file be transferred from Bitar to another judge.

The campaign against Bitar intensified on Friday. Jaafarite Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Qabalan said in his Friday sermon: “It is not allowed to play with fire. What happened in the investigation … increases strong doubts about fabrication as well as (demands for) the dismissal of Judge Bitar, as the country is teeming with corruption.”

After his meeting with the president on Friday, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi said: “Sects should not deal with justice; we are a country that separates between religion and state.”


Abbas tells UN Israeli actions could lead to ‘one state’

Abbas tells UN Israeli actions could lead to ‘one state’
Updated 24 September 2021

Abbas tells UN Israeli actions could lead to ‘one state’

Abbas tells UN Israeli actions could lead to ‘one state’
  • Abbas said Israel was “destroying the prospect of a political settlement based on the two-state solution” through its settlements on West Bank land
  • Most countries view the settlements as illegal, a position Israel disputes

RAMALLAH: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel on Friday of destroying the two-state solution with actions he said could lead Palestinians to demand equal rights within one binational state comprising Israel, the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Addressing the UN General Assembly via video link from the West Bank, Abbas, 85, urged the international community to act to save the two-state formula that for decades has been the bedrock of diplomacy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Abbas said Israel was “destroying the prospect of a political settlement based on the two-state solution” through its settlements on West Bank land it captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Most countries view the settlements as illegal, a position Israel disputes.
“If the Israeli occupation authorities continue to entrench the reality of one apartheid state as is happening today, our Palestinian people and the entire world will not tolerate such a situation,” Abbas said. Israel rejects accusations of apartheid.
“Circumstances on the ground will inevitably impose equal and full political rights for all on the land of historical Palestine, within one state. In all cases, Israel has to choose,” Abbas said from Ramallah, the seat of his Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule in the West Bank.
There was no immediate Israeli comment on Abbas’ remarks.
Critics say internal Palestinian divisions have also contributed to the deadlock in US-sponsored peace talks, which collapsed in 2014.
Under interim peace accords with Israel, Abbas’ PA was meant to exercise control in Gaza as well. But his Islamist rivals Hamas seized the coastal enclave in 2007 and years of on-and-off talks have failed to break their impasse.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a far-rightist who sits atop a cross-partisan coalition, opposes Palestinian statehood. His government has vowed to avoid sensitive choices toward the Palestinians and instead focus on economic issues.
In his UN address, Abbas threatened to rescind the Palestinians’ recognition of Israel if it does not withdraw from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem within a year.
“If this is not achieved, why maintain recognition of Israel based on the 1967 borders? Why maintain this recognition?” Abbas said.
While some Palestinians and Israelis support the idea of a single binational state, most have very different ideas of what that entity would look like and how it would be governed.
Most analysts contend a single state would not be viable, for religious, political and demographic reasons. Israeli governments have viewed a one-state concept as undermining the essence of an independent Jewish state.
US President Joe Biden reiterated his support for the two-state solution during his own UN address on Tuesday, saying it would ensure “Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state living in peace alongside a viable and democratic Palestinian state.”


US envoy to travel to Sudan next week after attempted coup

US envoy to travel to Sudan next week after attempted coup
Updated 24 September 2021

US envoy to travel to Sudan next week after attempted coup

US envoy to travel to Sudan next week after attempted coup
  • Sudanese authorities said they had foiled an attempted coup on Tuesday
  • The US State Department later condemned the coup and reiterated support for the transitional government

WASHINGTON: US envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman will visit Sudan next week to reaffirm American support for the country’s government days after Sudanese authorities said they had thwarted an attempted coup, the White House said Friday.
In a phone call with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, national security adviser Jake Sullivan “expressed the Biden administration’s commitment to support the civilian-led transition to democracy in Sudan and oppose any attempts to derail or disrupt the will of the Sudanese people,” the White House National Security Council said in a statement.
Sudanese authorities said they had foiled an attempted coup on Tuesday, accusing plotters loyal to ousted President Omar Al-Bashir of a failed bid to derail the revolution that removed him from power in 2019 and ushered in a transition to democracy.
The US State Department later condemned the coup and, along with the United Nations Security Council, reiterated support for the transitional government.
Sullivan on Friday also “underscored that any attempt by military actors to undermine the spirit and agreed benchmarks of Sudan’s constitutional declaration would have significant consequences for the US-Sudan bilateral relationship and planned assistance.”
The thwarted coup points to the difficult path facing Sudan under a fragile power-sharing deal between the military and civilians since the overthrow of Bashir, who presided over Sudan for nearly three decades and was shunned by the West.
Sudan’s current ruling body, known as the Sovereign Council, has won Western debt relief and taken steps to normalize ties with Israel, while battling a severe economic crisis. Elections are expected in 2024.


UN updates named death toll for Syria war

A Syrian Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria January 6, 2018. (Reuters/File Photo)
A Syrian Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria January 6, 2018. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 24 September 2021

UN updates named death toll for Syria war

A Syrian Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria January 6, 2018. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • OHCHR included only fatalities identifiable by a full name, with a place of death and an established date, from March 2011 to March 2021

GENEVA: The war in Syria has killed 350,209 fully identified individuals, according to a new count published Friday by the United Nations, which warned the real total of deaths would be far higher.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) included only fatalities identifiable by a full name, with a place of death and an established date, from March 2011 to March 2021.

“We assess this figure of 350,209 as statistically sound, based as it is on rigorous work,” High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council.

“It is not — and should not be seen as — a complete number of conflict-related killings in Syria during this period.

“It indicates a minimum verifiable number, and is certainly an under-count of the actual number of killings.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the benchmark for counting victims of the conflict, published a report on June 1 raising the death toll to 494,438 since the start of the violent crackdown on anti-regime protests in 2011.

The Observatory revised up by 105,000 its previous death toll from March 2021, following months of investigation based on documents and sources on the ground.

UN rights chief Bachelet said more than one in 13 victims on the OHCHR count was a woman — 27,727 — while almost one in every 13 was a child — 27,126.

She said the greatest number of documented fatalities was in the Aleppo governorate, with 51,731 named individuals killed.

Other locations with heavy death tolls were Rural Damascus (47,483), Homs (40,986), Idlib (33,271), Hama (31,993) and Tartus (31,369).

Bachelet said OHCHR had received records with partial information which could not go into the analysis but nonetheless indicated a wider number of killings that were not yet fully documented.

“Tragically, there are also many other victims who left behind no witnesses or documentation,” she said.

OHCHR has begun processing information on those alleged to have caused a number of deaths, together with the civilian and non-civilian status of victims, and the cause of death by types of weaponry.

“Documenting the identity of and circumstances in which people have died is key to the effective realisation of a range of fundamental human rights — to know the truth, to seek accountability, and to pursue effective remedies,” said Bachelet.

The former Chilean president said the Syrian people's daily lives "remain scarred by unimaginable suffering... and there is still no end to the violence they endure.”

Bachelet said the count would ensure those killed were not forgotten.

“Behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights,” she said.


Aoun hails new phase for Lebanon

Aoun hails new phase for Lebanon
Updated 24 September 2021

Aoun hails new phase for Lebanon

Aoun hails new phase for Lebanon
  • President calls for financial support for country as it tries to “claw its way back to recovery”
  • Praises recent agreement between rival factions to form new government

NEW YORK: Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Friday hailed a new phase for his country that he hopes will lead it to recovery from an unprecedented economic crisis.

In a pre-recorded speech to the UN General Assembly, he urged the international community to financially support Lebanon as it tries to “claw its way back to recovery.”

He praised the recent agreement between rival Lebanese political factions to form a new government, and said corruption and financial mismanagement have contributed to the country’s economic crisis.

Aoun pledged that the embattled central bank would be audited, and called for the international community’s support to help Lebanon recover funds smuggled abroad.

Billions of dollars are believed to have been smuggled into overseas accounts by Lebanese bankers.

Aoun said he rejects the integration of Syrian refugees into Lebanese society, and urged the international community to help resettle them in their country.

Syrian refugees who have returned have faced arrest and torture by the regime of President Bashar Assad. 

More than a year since the devastating explosion in the Port of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, Aoun said a confidential investigation into the origins of the explosive material and how it entered the port continues.