Genetic study of Emiratis pinpoints factors connected to rare diseases

Subtle differences have been found between people from the seven emirates

Genetic factors that could make some Emiratis susceptible to diseases such as diabetes have been highlighted by an international research project.

The study, which analysed the genetic make-up of nearly 1,200 Emiratis from the seven emirates, also offered insights into thousands of years of history.

Subtle differences were found between people from different emirates, a reflection of the country’s tribal culture.

The first results from the collaboration between researchers in the UAE, UK and Germany have been published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

What perhaps surprised us is that each of the emirates had their own set of signals that differentiated them
Prof Ashrafian, University of Oxford

“[The first purpose of the project has been] to try to understand the Emirati genetic architecture as a proxy for historical movements in the area,” said Prof Houman Ashrafian, a visiting professor at the University of Oxford’s Radcliffe Department of Medicine who was joint leader of the initiative.

“We also try to provide a toolkit to discern what may be unique drivers of disease in that population.”

The project came about through discussions a decade ago between Prof Ashrafian and the initiative’s other leader, Prof Maha Barakat, director general of the Frontline Heroes Office and director of research at Imperial College London Diabetes Centre Abu Dhabi.

Genetic analysis of human populations has tended to focus more on people of European descent, and populations in the Middle East are by comparison understudied.

With a comprehensive understanding of the genetic make-up of Emiratis, the study has identified forms of genes associated with disease, including variants that may not show up in other populations.

“What’s become clear is in populations like the Emiratis, we don’t have the same genetic structure as populations previously sequenced,” Prof Ashrafian said.

“People are recognising that to understand genetic disease better, you have to go to different populations. Broadly, the genetics community is trying to look at novel populations.”

In findings scheduled to be published separately from the report, the research has highlighted genetic markers linked to Type 2 diabetes and obesity, major health concerns in the UAE.

The findings could be used to identify whether individuals are at risk of developing these conditions and could be used to develop targeted drug treatment.

The study analysed 1.7 million genetic markers in 1,198 Emiratis, hospital patients or their relatives, who each provided a blood sample. Most markers were on the chromosomes, the inherited bundles of DNA and proteins.

The research showed that while the Emirati population is primarily of Middle Eastern heritage, there has been mixing over millennia with people from Africa and South Asia, and this is still happening.

In their paper, the researchers said that the genetic make-up of the Emirati population reflected genetic mixing events that happened “thousands of years ago”.

“[These were] possibly related to movement of people in the Middle East after major cultural transitions such as the invention of agriculture or more recent movements related to climate change and desertification of the region in the past 6,000 years,” they wrote.

However, the researchers reported that some individuals were “genetically identical with present-day Africans or South/Central Asians”, indicating that this mixing is still taking place.

The UAE population also reflects the country’s tribal traditions, which have created differences between Emiratis depending upon which emirate they came from.

“What’s really clear is that all Emiratis shared a strong and common genetic heritage,” Prof Ashrafian said. “What perhaps surprised us is that each of the emirates had their own set of signals that differentiated them.

“On a common genetic background there was some subtle genetic variation. The subtle genetic differences were recent.”

So in Sharjah, for example, there is greater genetic influence from Africa and Eurasia, while Abu Dhabi showed particular genetic similarities with Ethiopia, Qatar and the Levant.

Another result was that it was more common than in some other populations for people to have inherited the same form of any particular gene from both parents, which reflects the tradition of consanguineous marriage.

The research project, which is continuing, also involved researchers from the National Archives in Abu Dhabi, the University of Birmingham and Durham University in the UK, and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

Updated: February 27, 2022, 3:30 AM