Unraveling the Mysteries of Genetic Evolution: Scientists Uncover the Origins of Multiple Sclerosis

In a groundbreaking discovery of genetic evolution, an international team of scientists from the universities of Cambridge, Copenhagen, and Oxford has decoded the ancient DNA of teeth and bones to shed light on the prevalence of diseases in different parts of Europe. Their research, spanning over a decade, has led to a “quantum leap” in understanding the evolution of multiple sclerosis (MS) and offers insights that could reshape our understanding of disease causation and treatment strategies.

Why Investigate Multiple Sclerosis?

The prevalence of multiple sclerosis is notably higher in north-western Europe, including regions like the UK and Scandinavia, compared to southern Europe. MS is characterized by the body’s immune cells attacking the brain and spinal cord, resulting in symptoms such as muscle stiffness, walking difficulties, and speech problems. To uncover the roots of this geographical discrepancy, scientists delved into archaeology, tracing the genetic origins of MS.

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The Yamnaya Migration and MS Risk

Through their meticulous research, the scientists identified a significant genetic shift approximately 5,000 years ago with the migration of Yamnaya, cattle herders from western Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, into north-western Europe. At that time, the gene variants carried by the Yamnaya provided protection against diseases in their livestock. Fast forward to the present day, and these same genetic traits now elevate the risk of developing MS, due to changes in lifestyle, diet, and improved hygiene.

Comparing this data with the genes of contemporary UK residents, the scientists established a link between the ancient gene variants and the modern prevalence of MS. This extensive research effort resulted in the creation of a DNA bank from 5,000 ancient humans, housed in museum collections globally, facilitating future studies.

Demystifying Multiple Sclerosis

Dr. William Barrie, an expert in computational analysis of ancient DNA at the University of Cambridge, expressed his astonishment at the findings. The discovery “demystifies” MS, challenging the perception that mutations cause it. Instead, it portrays MS as being driven by normal genes that historically protected humans against pathogens.

According to Prof Lars Fugger, an MS doctor at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, the transformed disease landscape, shaped by vaccinations, antibiotics, and improved hygiene, has left modern immune systems more susceptible to autoimmune diseases like MS. Current MS treatments target the immune system, but there’s a delicate balance to strike to avoid compromising the body’s ability to fight infections. Prof Fugger emphasizes the need to find the “sweet spot” in treatment, preserving immune function while managing the disease effectively.

Beyond Multiple Sclerosis: Exploring Genetic evolution

The team of researchers intends to expand their investigation to other diseases and conditions, leveraging ancient DNA to trace their origins. This includes neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and ADHD, mood disorders like bipolar disorder and depression, and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes.

Yamnaya Herders and Height Differences

Intriguingly, another Nature paper from the research uncovered more insights into our genetic past. The Yamnaya herders, responsible for introducing MS-related gene variants, were also found to contribute to the height differences between northern and southern Europeans. This adds another layer to the complex interplay between genetics and geographical factors in shaping diverse health outcomes.

Genetic evolution Across Europe

While northern Europeans may carry a higher genetic risk for MS, the research suggests that southern Europeans are more predisposed to bipolar disorder. Additionally, eastern Europeans exhibit a higher likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes. The study revealed that genes from prehistoric hunter-gatherers are associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s, whereas genes from ancient farmers are linked to mood disorders.

Historical Dietary Shifts and Genetic evolution

The research also delved into the historical shifts in human diets, revealing that the ability to digest milk and other dairy products, and survive on a vegetable-heavy diet, only emerged around 6,000 years ago. Before this transition, humans were predominantly meat-eaters. This genetic adaptation sheds light on the dynamic relationship between human evolution, dietary changes, and genetic responses.

Unlocking the Origins of Neurodevelopmental Disorders

The team’s exploration into the genetic origins of neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and ADHD holds great promise. By studying ancient DNA, scientists aim to identify the historical genetic variants associated with these conditions, offering crucial insights into their evolution over millennia. This approach not only sheds light on the factors contributing to the prevalence of such disorders but also sets the stage for more targeted interventions and preventive strategies.

Mood Disorders and Ancient Genes

The link between ancient genes and mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder and depression, adds another layer to the evolving narrative of human mental health. Understanding how specific genetic variants were advantageous in ancient contexts but may pose risks in contemporary settings provides a nuanced perspective on mental health challenges. This knowledge can guide the development of tailored treatments and interventions that consider both the historical and modern contexts of these conditions.


In unraveling the mysteries of genetic evolution, this groundbreaking research not only provides a deeper understanding of the origins of multiple sclerosis but also opens doors to exploring the genetic underpinnings of various other diseases and conditions. As we navigate the complex interplay between ancient genes and modern health challenges, these revelations could pave the way for more targeted and effective treatments, ultimately improving the quality of life for individuals affected by these conditions.

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