Researchers have created the world’s largest ancient human gene bank by analyzing the bones and teeth of nearly 5,000 individuals who lived in Western Europe and Asia up to 34,000 years ago. Their international team sequenced ancient human DNA and compared it with modern samples to map the historical dissemination of genes and diseases over time through population migration. These „remarkable“ findings were revealed in four groundbreaking research papers published in the same issue of Nature, providing new biological insights into debilitating conditions.
The study, led by Professor Eske Willerslev from the University of Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen, Professor Thomas Werge from the University of Copenhagen, and Professor Rasmus Nielsen from the University of California, Berkeley, involved contributions from 175 researchers worldwide. The research uncovered surprising origins of neurodegenerative diseases, including multiple sclerosis, and traced the introduction of risk genes into Northwestern Europe through major migration movements about 5,000 years ago, resulting in the higher prevalence of multiple sclerosis in that region.
The study found that the genes that significantly increased the risk of developing multiple sclerosis were introduced by migrating sheep and cattle herders from the East into Northwestern Europe. These genes provided an advantage to the Yamnaya people, protecting them from infections while increasing their susceptibility to multiple sclerosis. Additionally, genes known to increase the risk of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes were traced back to hunter-gatherers.
The researchers hope to use future analyses to gain insight into the genetic markers of autism, ADHD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. The age of the specimens in the study ranged from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods to the Viking Age and the Middle Ages, providing an explanation for the disparity between Northern and Southern European populations‘ prevalence of multiple sclerosis, which had previously puzzled researchers.
The study was made possible through the analysis of ancient DNA data stored in a unique gene bank created by researchers using funds from the Lundbeck Foundation over the past five years. This gene bank, the first of its kind worldwide, has already provided new insights into a wide range of topics, from ancient human migration to genetically determined risk profiles for brain diseases. The team plans to investigate other neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as psychiatric disorders, including ADHD and schizophrenia, aiming to eventually make the gene bank accessible to researchers worldwide.
Barrie, William et al. “Increased Genetic Risk of Multiple Sclerosis in Steppe Pastoralists.” Nature, vol. 625, no. 7994, 2023, pp. 321-328, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06618-z.
K., Evan, et al. “The Selection Landscape and Genetic Legacy of Ancient Eurasians.” Nature, vol. 625, no. 7994, 2023, pp. 312-320, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06705-1.
Allentoft, Morten E., et al. “Population Genomics of Postglacial Western Eurasia.” Nature, vol. 625, no. 7994, 2023, pp. 301-311, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06865-0.