Ancient DNA Decodes MS Mystery: European Disease Origins Unearthed

Multiple sclerosis, a disease where the immune cells attack the brain and spinal cord, has long exhibited a higher prevalence in north-western Europe compared to the south.

A team of scientists from Cambridge, Copenhagen, and Oxford conducted a decade-long study on ancient teeth and bone DNA, uncovering insights into disease prevalence and physical traits across Europe. The findings, detailed in four papers published in Nature, provide a quantum leap in understanding the evolution of diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) and shed light on the genetic origins of traits such as height.

Multiple Sclerosis: Unraveling the Genetic Puzzle

Multiple sclerosis, a disease where the immune cells attack the brain and spinal cord, has long exhibited a higher prevalence in north-western Europe compared to the south. The research traced back the roots of this discrepancy to a migration event around 5,000 years ago, involving a group of cattle herders known as the Yamnaya.

Originating from western Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, the Yamnaya migrated west into Europe, bringing with them gene variants that conferred protection against diseases in their livestock.

At that time, these genetic traits were advantageous, offering immunity to the herders against animal diseases. However, in the present day, with modern lifestyles and improved hygiene, these same genetic variants increase the susceptibility to autoimmune diseases like MS. The study suggests that as human societies evolved, so did the role of these genes, turning a once advantageous trait into a risk factor for certain diseases.

Implications for Multiple Sclerosis Treatment

Dr. William Barrie, an expert in computational analysis of ancient DNA at the University of Cambridge, described the findings as astounding. The research team believes this discovery could reshape the understanding of what causes MS and influence the approach to its treatment.

Current MS treatments often involve targeting the immune system, but the challenge lies in finding a delicate balance to avoid suppressing it excessively and leaving patients vulnerable to infections.

Genetic Roots of Physical Traits

In addition to unraveling the mystery of MS, the researchers uncovered insights into the genetic roots of physical traits. One surprising revelation was that the Yamnaya herders might be responsible for the height difference between northern and southern Europeans. Northern Europeans were found to be taller, with the Yamnaya herders potentially contributing to this physical trait.

Furthermore, the study revealed regional genetic predispositions to other conditions. Southern Europeans were identified as more likely to develop bipolar disorder, while eastern Europeans showed an increased likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes. The research delved into the genetic origins of various diseases, linking specific ancient populations to different health conditions.

Beyond MS: Exploring Other Genetic Clues

With a newly established bank of DNA from 5,000 ancient humans, collected from museum collections across multiple countries, the research team plans to continue their exploration. The goal is to investigate other diseases and conditions in ancient DNA, potentially shedding light on the origins of autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and depression.

The study also provided insights into the evolution of human diets. It revealed that the ability to digest milk and survive on a vegetable-heavy diet emerged approximately 6,000 years ago, challenging previous assumptions about early human dietary habits.

Future Implications

The findings from this extensive research project mark a significant step forward in understanding the interplay between genetics, diseases, and physical traits. As scientists continue to explore ancient DNA, there is hope that such revelations will lead to more targeted and effective approaches to treating and preventing various health conditions.

The delicate balance between harnessing the advantages of our genetic heritage and addressing the challenges posed by modern lifestyles remains a central theme in ongoing research. The quest to find the “sweet spot” in managing the immune system may pave the way for innovative strategies in tackling autoimmune diseases like MS and beyond.