A UAE-based research team led by Professor Maha Barakat, Director General of the Frontline Heroes Office and Director of Research at Imperial College London Diabetes Centre Abu Dhabi (ICLDC), a Mubadala Health partner, together with researchers from the University of Oxford, have unveiled a groundbreaking discovery with significant potential to enhance healthcare outcomes in the UAE.
Following analysis of the fine-scale genetic structure and ancestry of nearly 1,200 people from the UAE by a team of geneticists and archaeologists, the results have shown genetic traces of population mixing spanning thousands of years.
The research team, co-led by Professor Houman Ashrafian from Oxford University’s Radcliffe Department of Medicine, think 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.
The research team from Oxford University and the ICLDC think that these genetic traces 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.
Professor Maha Barakat said: "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.” 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.
Dr. Fatima Al Kaabi, Executive Director of the Emirati Genome programme at the Abu Dhabi Executive Office said: “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 healthcare with a focus on prevention and improving overall wellbeing.”
Oxford University’s Professor Houman Ashrafian, said: “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.”
“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 variation.”
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.