A gene variant that may up the risk of diabetes in Latin Americans appears to have been inherited from Neanderthals, a study suggests.
Modern humans interbred with a population of Neanderthals shortly after leaving Africa 60,000-70,000 years ago, leaving a legacy of Neanderthal genes in the genomes of all non-African living today, they said.
A genomic study by U.S. and Mexican researchers of more than 8,000 Mexicans and other Latin Americans found the higher risk form of the gene exists in up to half of people with recent Native American ancestry including Latin Americans, a release from the Broad Institute, a biomedical and genomic research center in Massachusetts, said Thursday.
The gene variant is found less often in East Asians and is rare in populations from Europe and Africa, the researchers said.
People who carry the higher risk version of the gene are 25 percent more likely to have diabetes than those who do not, and people who inherited copies from both parents are 50 percent more likely to have diabetes, they said.
"To date, genetic studies have largely used samples from people of European or Asian ancestry, which makes it possible to miss culprit genes that are altered at different frequencies in other populations," Broad Institute researcher Jose Florez said.
"By expanding our search to include samples from Mexico and Latin America, we've found one of the strongest genetic risk factors discovered to date, which could illuminate new pathways to target with drugs and a deeper understanding of the disease."
Inheriting a gene from Neanderthal ancestors is actually not uncommon, the researchers said; about 1 to 2 percent of the sequences present in all modern day humans outside of Africa were inherited from Neanderthals.
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