Researchers have stumbled upon an allele which is evolved in certain populations due to their vegetarian diet. An allele is responsible for different expressions of the same gene in different people. The same gene was also found to be expressing differently in people who consume seafood, like the Enuits in Greenland. The research was done at the Cornell University.
The variation is said to have occurred in the populations which have traditionally consumed a plant based diet for many years. Many parts of India, Africa, East Asia etc. have traditionally been home to a lot of vegetarians. The variations are necessary as they allow the vegetarians to process omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and utilise them for brain development, by converting them into certain compounds. The metabolism of plant fatty acids happen quickly.
If the vegetarian gene wouldn’t have adapted in all these years, the vegans would have been unable to give their system a balanced omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid diet.
As we use cheap cooking oils, these vegetarian genes can result in excessive arachidonic acid absorption which results in inflammation. This may give rise to colon cancer, heart diseases etc. Hence instead of having oils like sunflower oil, the vegans should have oils like olive oil, which are low in omega-6 linoleic acid.
The gene allele found in the Inuits had already been identified before. This study claimed that this modification is opposite to the one seen in the vegetarians. The allele in vegetarians has a 22 base insertion in the gene while this was missing in those who consume seafood. One reason might be that people from Greenland don’t need any induced change in their omega fatty acids consumption as they are already getting it properly from seafood.
In this study, 234 Indians who were vegetarians and 311 volunteers from USA (specifically from Kansas) were studied and their vegetarian allele frequency was determined. 68% of the Indian volunteers had that adapted allele while just 18% Americans expressed it. Then, the researchers turned to Genome Project and procured data from there. 70% South Asians, 53% Africans, 29% East Asians and 17% of Europeans expressed the evolved allele.
The vegetarian gene allele was found in early hominid Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes but not in chimpanzee or orangutan genomes. Researchers are now trying to find the time period in which this gene evolved.
This can open new avenues in terms of personalized nutrition. This is a process by which we can customise our diets so that it matches to the genes and the genetic variations present in the body.
This work on the Vegetarian Gene was reported in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.
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