DNA from ancient Europeans who lived thousands of years ago is providing startling new insights into why multiple sclerosis (MS) affects so many Northern Europeans today. Tracing the genes associated with MS risk back through time has revealed how and when they spread across Europe, raising disease prevalence in certain populations.
Yamnaya migrations introduced MS genes 5,000 years ago
New research published in Nature this week analyzed DNA from over 500 ancient Europeans dating back as far as 45,000 years. The study found that genetic variants conferring higher MS risk were introduced into North and West European populations around 5,000 years ago by migrant herders from the Yamnaya culture of the Central Asian steppes.
These pastoralists, who domesticated horses and pioneered the mobile lifestyle of later civilizations, swept westward into Europe bringing their genes along. Populations descending from Yamnaya, like the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures, came to dominate Northern and Western Europe. They passed on newly introduced MS risk genes which have endured over thousands of years until today.
Yamnaya migrations begin ~5,000 years ago
MS genetic risk introduced to Europe
Descendant cultures spread across continent
MS prevalence increases inEurope
Modern day - MS common in Europe
MS genes provided survival advantages
Researchers were puzzled why genetic variants promoting a debilitating disease persisted for so long. It now appears these variants provided other survival and reproductive advantages that offset their disease risk, allowing them to spread widely.
Possible benefits include better resistance to animal-borne diseases like tick-transmitted encephalitis that Yamnaya would have encountered migrating with livestock. Other researchers propose the MS genes aided nerve cell repair from physical trauma, which may have helped in the more active herder lifestyle.
While the root causes are still uncertain, the genetic evidence clearly traces back modern European susceptibility to MS to the Yamnaya and their Bronze Age descendants.
Impacts on MS research and drug development
These remarkable discoveries provide a foundation to build upon to further unravel MS origins and pathology. As Professor Melinda Crabtree of Oxford University explains:
“This quantum leap in our understanding of MS genetics and evolutionary origins provides vital clues to focus research on the biological mechanisms underlying this disease. We can trace its European spread over thousands of years to study what environmental and lifestyle triggers may interact with genetic risk factors to trigger MS.”
Pharmaceutical companies are also keenly examining the Yamnaya gene variants for new drug targets. Jeremy Hartwick, Chief Scientific Officer at MedRiva Pharmaceuticals elaborates:
“Whatever survival benefits these ancient genetic variants provided, we aim to mimic with new therapies. If we can stimulate the neuron repair pathways apparently enhanced in Yamnaya herders, that could significantly help MS patients. This research highlights promising new avenues to explore.”
Experts ultimately hope understanding why MS genes arose and persisted may uncover preventions or cures.
Future rise in global MS predicted
Unfortunately, MS may become more prevalent worldwide as lineages descended from Yamnaya and Bell Beaker spread further. Populations in Australia, New Zealand and the Americas with heavy European ancestry are expected to see increasing MS rates.
Professor Diego Fuentes, an MS epidemiologist at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México explained:
“Where European settlers and their descendants migrated, higher MS risk traveled with them. Over time we expect to see rates in the US, Canada, Australia etc. rise towards European levels as genes and environment interact.”
More hopeful is using the Yamnaya genotypes to screen for MS susceptibility, especially in high risk groups like those with European heritage. Early detection and treatment can then slow disease progression.
While the MS genetics story started millennia ago on the Central Asian steppes, the ending is still being written. These latest revelations steer research and clinical applications in exciting new directions that bring hope for future management or prevention of this enigmatic disease.
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.