Diabetes, is it in your genes?

New research links “desert genes” to high obesity and diabetes in Kuwaitis

In a recently published article in the Oxford Genome Biology and Evolution journal, Professor Fahd Al Mulla, Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Eaaswar Muthukrishna, scientist/senior author and their team explain how genetic factors contribute to the health problems found in the Kuwaiti population today.

Over the past decade, multiple studies and guidelines have been published, warning the public of the health risks associated with living a sedentary or inactive lifestyle. Physical inactivity has shown to reduce metabolism and disrupt the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels, blood pressure and fat breakdown/storage.

Health risks include:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Cancer
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Early death

In Kuwait, we have witnessed alarming rates of obesity and diabetes. Our researchers continue in their search for answers.

Why are obesity, diabetes and other metabolic disorders common in Kuwaitis? Are diet and lifestyle choices the main cause?

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors relied on a genetic variation, a modified stretch of DNA, to survive a physically demanding lifestyle and harsh environmental conditions such as water deprivation, food shortage and hot weather. This stretch of DNA increases their active metabolism and blood pressure. This allows their bodies to survive in hot climates, hunt or gather and lead very active lives with little food and water. Today, the same stretch of DNA becomes a killer. The active metabolism, influenced by this stretch of DNA, increases our food consumption, but our current lifestyle is not very active or not as active as our nomadic ancestors. Under a more sedentary lifestyle, this stretch of DNA leads to obesity, increased blood pressure and diabetes.

Our researchers analyzed 662,750 genetic variations in 583 Kuwaitis. DDI used four different statistical methods to measure the different variations that occurred to the genome overtime. Genetic tests use haplotypes, genes inherited from our parents, to determine the influence of these genes on disease development. Our researchers were able to identify a haplotype, TNKS, in the Kuwaiti population that was linked to metabolic disorders and high blood pressure.

We aim to conduct further studies that can help in disease diagnosis, management and prevention in the region.

This article has been featured in Nature Middle East and Arab News.


Eaaswarkhanth, M., dos Santos, A.L.C., Gokcumen, O., Al-Mulla, F. and Thanaraj, T.A., 2020. Genome-Wide Selection Scan in an Arabian Peninsula Population Identifies a TNKS Haplotype Linked to Metabolic Traits and Hypertension. Genome Biology and Evolution12(3), pp.77-87.

Chekroud, S. R., Gueorguieva, R., Zheutlin, A. B., Paulus, M., Krumholz, H. M., Krystal, J. H., & Chekroud, A. M. (2018, August 8). Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: A cross-sectional study. The Lancet Psychiatry5(9), 739–746

Warren, T.Y., Barry, V., Hooker, S.P., Sui, X., Church, T.S. and Blair, S.N., 2010. Sedentary behaviors increase risk of cardiovascular disease mortality in men. Medicine and science in sports and exercise42(5), p.879.

Richardson, C.R., Kriska, A.M., Lantz, P.M. and Hayward, R.A., 2004. Physical activity and mortality across cardiovascular disease risk groups. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise36(11), pp.1923-1929.

Zhai, L., Zhang, Y., & Zhang, D (2014, September 2). Sedentary behavior and the risk of depression: A meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine49(11), 705–709

Would you like to subscribe
to our newsletter?