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Metabolic disorders In kuwait – are our Ancestral genes to Blame?

Why is the prevalence of obesity and metabolic disorders so high in the Middle East? Are diet and lifestyle choices the sole culprits? A new study1 conducted at Dasman Diabetes Institute may have found the answer to this longstanding question. Researchers have found that the key may be in the genes inherited from our ancestors, which helped them survive the extremely dry and hot conditions of the Arabian desert.

Hypertension, obesity and diabetes have been on the rise, affecting the lives of many in the Arabian Gulf region. Particularly, obesity, often regarded as the epidemic of the 21st century, is a growing concern in Kuwait; with the highest prevalence of obesity in the Gulf, Kuwait comes second only to the USA in the world’s most obese nations.

These modern metabolic disorders are often attributed to lack of physical activity and the consumption of calorie-rich food, driven by the hasty urbanization of the post-oil boom in the region. But are sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy diet the key drivers behind these metabolic health conditions? Not solely, claims a new study conducted by the scientists at Dasman Diabetes Institute, based in Kuwait – genetic factors do pitch-in.

The study takes a new look at the reason behind the high prevalence of metabolic diseases in contemporary Kuwaitis. The researchers examined hundreds of thousands of genetic variations within the genomes (DNA) of Kuwaiti peoples of different ancestries; they found multiple regions in the genome associated with metabolic functions which seem to have been selected over generations.

says Dr. Muthukrishnan Eaaswarkhanth who is lead author in the study. The study highlights the region across a gene named TNKS, which is associated with hypertension, obesity and type 2 diabetes. The new research provides an evolutionary explanation for the high incidence of obesity and the related Metabolic Syndrome in Kuwait. The study was published in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution and featured in Nature Middle East.

Why are these disease-inducing genetic elements selected in kuwaitis? 

“Probably, the harsh desert environment pushed this selection”, says Eaaswarkhanth. “A previous study had speculated that insulin resistance and hypertension, which stimulate the sympathetic nervous system “fight-flight-or-freeze” response, could have been beneficial in hunter-gatherer populations, conferring them a hemodynamic advantage”, he adds. The scientists concluded that these genetic adaptations may have conferred our Kuwaiti ancestors a fitness advantage to survive in the desert.

Past vs. Present: has the survival benefit in kuwaiti ancestors become detrimental to modern-day kuwaitis?

“The adaptation to the extreme environments has been beneficial in some populations. The best example of this is the biological and genetic adaptations to deep-sea diving in sea nomads”, explains Eaaswarkhanth. Bajau tribes of Indonesia evolutionarily developed larger spleens to make more oxygen during prolonged dives under sea. Conversely, in the existing Kuwaiti people, genetic adaptations that benefitted their grandfathers seem to be unfavorable. “The rapid shift from arduous living to a sophisticated, physically inactive lifestyle has brought all these modern metabolic maladies into our lives”, says Dr. Thangavel Alphonse Thanaraj, a senior author in the study. “Our findings suggest that past adaptive trends may have further predisposed Kuwaiti populations to the modern metabolic diseases at the genetic level”, he added. The research, funded by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences, was conducted in collaboration with the University at Buffalo, NY, USA.