Natural selection tames alcohol use
It is well known that some East Asians have a low tolerance for alcoholic drinks because they carry variants of genes that help regulate alcohol metabolism.
New research by Kenneth K. Kidd, Ph.D., professor of genetics, and first author and postdoctoral associate Hui Li, Ph.D., suggests that some environmental change in East Asia during the past few thousand years promoted the spread of one such variant protecting certain ethnic groups from vulnerability to alcoholism.
The new study, published in April in the online journal PLoS ONE, reports that a variant of a gene known as ADH1B became widespread specifically among the speakers of the Hmong and Altaic language families because of some relatively recent difference in these groups’ environments. Any number of factors—the variant may have conferred resistance to a novel parasite or toxin, for example—could have triggered the genetic change, the researchers say.
That these populations are less prone to alcoholism as a result is happenstance, Kidd says, but “something important in recent human history has affected the genetic composition of many East Asian populations.”