- Heshan Perera on Unsplash

Evolution is destroying our ability to tolerate alcohol

Straight to hangover! Sounds nightmarish! And it is!

Recent studies have shown that we are still evolving and now, new research published in Nature Ecology and Evolution suggests we could be developing a gene that wrecks our tolerance for alcohol. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvaniaย analysed the genomes of some 2500 people from 26 populations across four continents using data collected by the 1000 Genomes Project. The team then singled out specific traits or "genomic hotspots" that pop up in various, divergent populations - say, changes to an area of the gene responsible for producing glycophorins, which has occurred in parts of Africa and Asia.

For this to have happened, the mutation must have emerged independently in these two different populations and persisted. Alternatively, if there had been just one initial mutation, it would have had to travel like Speedy Gonzales across the two continents. In the study, the researchers highlight five areas of recent change.

Arisa Chattasa on Unsplash

Arisa Chattasa on Unsplash

Most interestingly, perhaps, are the modifications to the alcohol dehydrogenase cluster (ADH), which could be changing how we process alcohol. Dehydrogenase is the enzyme that breaks down alcohol, which it does by metabolising it into a compound called acetaldehyde. This toxic chemical is responsible for your pounding headache the morning after a night out. Fortunately, the body is able to turn this into another substance that is non-toxic called acetate relatively quickly and we feel better after a day or so.

However, evolution could be finding a way to curb humanityโ€™s alcohol addiction by creating new variants of ADH that affect our tolerance to booze and our bodyโ€™s ability to convert acetaldehyde to acetate. Essentially, it means we would feel ill after just a small amount of drink. So far, these genes have only been detected in East Asia and West Africa, but time will tell how far they spread.

thom masat on Unsplash

thom masat on Unsplash

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