A new study of ancient skeletal remains from researchers at the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Copenhagen suggests that migrating herders brought MS susceptibility genes to the ancient population of Northern Europe around 5,000 years ago. Many of the gene variants that contribute to a person’s risk of developing MS today are largely related to immune system function, and this study suggests that these genes may have given ancient herders a survival advantage by warding off infectious agents carried by their flocks.
Research has demonstrated that MS occurs in most ethnic groups, including Black, Asian and Hispanic/Latinx people in the U.S., but is most common among white people of northern European descent. The European population, however, was shaped by waves of migration. These waves included hunter-gatherers who migrated 45,000 years ago, farmers who came from the Middle East 11,000 years ago and animal herders who moved in from the Pontic Steppe (an area spanning central Europe to central Asia) about 5,000 years ago.
The team analyzed genetic material from more than 300 skeletons found in Europe, most of which were between 3,000 and 11,000 years old. They combined this information with previous studies that detailed the genetic material of 1,300 other ancient skeletons from the area and modern MS genetics studies largely compiled by the International MS Genetics Consortium.
The analysis suggests that herders migrating from the Pontic Steppe (specifically central/eastern Europe) introduced genes that increased susceptibility for MS to the populations of northern Europe. The results also show that, at the time, the introduction of these genes represented a process known as “positive natural selection.” This means that the genes provided an advantage – they likely helped herders to fight off infections they were exposed to because of the animals they were herding. Over time, however, the genes began to contribute to the immune response that attacks the body’s own nervous system in MS.
Why does this matter?
This study presents new information about the cause of MS and helps to focus research on areas that accelerate progress towards cures.
Read a writeup
of this study on the Nature
Curing MS requires a global effort – learn more
“Elevated genetic risk for multiple sclerosis emerged in steppe pastoralist populations
” by William Barrie, Yaoling Yang, Evan K. Irving-Pease, Kathrine E. Attfield, Gabriele Scorrano, Lise Torp Jensen, Angelos P. Armen, Evangelos Antonios Dimopoulos, Aaron Stern, Alba Refoyo-Martinez, Alice Pearson, Abigail Ramsøe, Charleen Gaunitz, Fabrice Demeter, Marie Louise S. Jørkov, Stig Bermann Møller, Bente Springborg, Lutz Klassen, Inger Marie Hyldgård, Niels Wickmann, Lasse Vinner, Thorfinn Sand Korneliussen, Morten E. Allentoft, Martin Sikora, and Eske Willerslev is published in Nature
(Published online: 10 January 2024).