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Multiple sclerosis is a legacy of nomadic steppe herders

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Multiple sclerosis is a legacy of nomadic steppe herders

New research has shed light on the origin of a degenerative disease common in Northern Europe, tracing it back to the nomadic shepherds who migrated from Central Asia to Europe 5,000 years ago. According to the study published in Nature, the genes that predispose to multiple sclerosis were introduced to the northern part of Europe by the Yamnaya, the ancient steppe herders who replaced European hunter-gatherer populations in many areas.

The study, based on the largest database of ancient DNA, found that the genetic variants associated with the risk of multiple sclerosis were “traveled” alongside the Yamnaya, moving from the Asian steppes to Northwest Europe. This particular genetic inheritance left in Europeans by the Yamnaya is much more marked in modern inhabitants of Northern Europe and less present in populations of Southern Europe.

Further analysis of DNA extracted from the bones and teeth of approximately 5,000 individuals preserved in museum collections, and dating back to different historic eras, revealed that these genes represented an advantage for the survival of Eurasian shepherds at the time, protecting them from infections transmitted by the animals they herded. However, in the modern era, these same genes have been linked to an increased risk of multiple sclerosis, particularly due to the drastic changes in lifestyle and environmental factors.

In addition to shedding light on the origins and the evolutionary impact of these genes, the study also found that various medical conditions prevalent in different European populations could be traced back to the genetic influence of other ancient populations that migrated to the continent. For example, southern Europeans are genetically predisposed to developing bipolar disorder, while Eastern Europeans have a higher genetic risk of developing Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes.

The research has highlighted the complex interplay between ancient genetic adaptations and modern environmental factors, suggesting that humans are the heirs of ancient immune systems in a rapidly changing world. As Astrid Iversen, co-author of the study from the University of Oxford, explains, “Today we have very different lives from those of our ancestors in terms of hygiene, nutrition and the possibility of medical care. This, combined with our evolutionary history, means we may be more susceptible to certain diseases.” The discovery of these genetic predispositions to various diseases further emphasizes the importance of understanding the ancient genetic legacies that continue to shape our health today.

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