Nine-year study on ancestry of 1,200 Emiratis sheds new light

Findings can help spot genetic variants linked to diseases, enable preventive healthcare

According to the researchers, the genetic traces could also reflect interesting details about the movement of people in the Middle East after major cultural transitions, such as the invention of agriculture, as well as desertification of the region in the past 6,000 years.

Abu Dhabi: A nine-year study has identified a fine-scale genetic structure of the Emirati population that could help spot rare genetic variants related to diseases.

In a statement, the Abu Dhabi Media Office said the study, carried out by a UAE-based research team at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC), in collaboration with Oxford University, has “unveiled a groundbreaking discovery with significant potential to enhance healthcare outcomes in the UAE”.

Population mixing

The project involved the analysis of fine-scale genetic structures and ancestry of 1,200 Emiratis by a team of geneticists and archaeologists. The results showed genetic traces of population mixing spanning thousands of years.

The research teams were led by Dr Maha Barakat, director general of the Frontline Heroes Office and ICLDC director of research, and Dr Houman Ashrafian at Oxford University’s Radcliffe Department of Medicine. Dr Ashrafian believes that the unique family histories within the UAE will make it easier to spot otherwise rare genetic variants related to diseases such as type 2 diabetes. This means that geneticists could potentially use this population as a microcosm to find and understand otherwise difficult-to-find genes related to metabolic diseases.

Migration patterns

The research team from Oxford University and the ICLDC also think that these genetic traces reflect interesting details about the movement of people in the Middle East after major cultural transitions, such as the invention of agriculture, as well as desertification of the region in the past 6,000 years.

“We are pleased to see the outcomes of ICLDC genetics research efforts pay off after nine years of continuous work, coordination and collaboration with the Oxford University team,” Dr Barakat said. She also noted that this unique research, the first of its kind, had produced significant results on migration patterns in the Northern Emirates and the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Preventive health care

“We are delighted to witness how the teams’ tireless genomics research efforts, in collaboration with a world-leading institution such as Oxford University, are supporting the UAE’s wider work in genomics, which aim to enable personalised health care with a focus on prevention and improving overall wellbeing,” added Dr Fatima Al Kaabi, executive director of the Emirati Genome programme at Abu Dhabi Executive Office.

According to Dr Ashrafian, the sample can be used to find disease-linked genetic variants.

“This is the first fine-scale genetic analysis of the Emirati population and in addition to finding genetic traces suggestive of migration events from thousands of years back, we think that this is a useful sample to find genetic variants linked to type 2 diabetes, which would have been hard to spot in any other population,” Dr Ashrafian said.

Precision medicine

“The Middle East is relatively understudied when it comes to population genetic studies, despite being home to over 460 million people. The unique population history of the UAE makes it a good site to understand the genetics of this region, helping reduce health disparities and promote genomics-driven precision medicine through a deeper understanding of population-specific genetic variations,” he added.

Archaeologists have found evidence of people migrating across the Middle East because of climatic events such as droughts, as well as population expansions after humid ‘greening’ events. Trade hubs, such as pearl diving, also led to the mass movement of people.

The research study, published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, compared the genetics of their sample from current day UAE to those of people from Sub-Saharan Africa, the wider Middle East, Europe, the Caucasus and South Asia and found that the genetic admixture of their UAE sample reflected its intercontinental location between Africa, Europe and Asia. The team also analysed the genetic makeup of the Y chromosome, which is only passed along the male line, and a cell component called the mitochondria, which is only passed along the female line. This too found genetic mixtures consistent with previously-known migration events.

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