New study offers a 'big picture' of Europe's genetic landscape

New study offers a 'big picture' of Europe's genetic landscape
genetic landscape

A new study from RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences examining population genetics across Europe has looked at the diverse ancestors of people living in the United Kingdom. This information has the potential to inform future health research on the genetic factors that contribute to disease.

The study, which was led by researchers in the RCSI College of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences and the SFI FutureNeuro Research Center, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

RCSI researchers and FutureNeuro UK Biobank, a database of genetic and health information on more than 500,000 participants from the United Kingdom, used to examine population genetics and ancestry across Europe.

The study analyzed genetic ancestry data for individuals in the UK Biobank who reported having a European hometown outside the UK - about 1% of the data set. The researchers have cataloged where people have shared parts of their genome with other people, indicating that they shared a common ancestor over the last 3,000 years.

Using this data, researchers can divide individuals who share more than average segments into three branches, which correspond to southern, central-eastern, and northwestern Europe.

The researchers were able to infer historical patterns such as population size and how genetically isolated certain European regions are relative to one another by studying patterns of genome sharing.

In general, people from southern Europe have less in common genetically with each other than people from other regions, owing to the region's larger population and thus a greater number of ancestors.

Malta was found to have a smaller group of ancestors due to its location as an island. This is the first study of Maltese population genetics on a large scale. Identification of European regions with a specific history of genetic isolation, such as Malta, can help discover genetic factors that contribute to disease.

The findings present UK Biobank as a source of diverse assets outside the UK, in addition to building and expanding on prior knowledge in Europe. This has the potential to complement and inform researchers interested in particular societies or regions throughout Europe and the world.

Professor Gianpiero Cavalieri, Professor of Human Genetics at the College's Royal College of Surgeons, FutureNeuro Deputy Director and senior author commented on the paper: "This research demonstrated the diversity of European ancestry sampled from the UK Biobank and enabled us to show the 'big picture' genetic landscape of Europe, including new insights into societies such as within Malta.

This study suggests that similar gains in knowledge can be found in non-European breed collections using the UK Biobank, which is typically excluded from genetic analyses."

The study made use of the freely available UK Biobank resource. It was supported by a NUI Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Science, Engineering and Science Foundation in Ireland, via the FutureNeuro Research Center and the Research Training Center in Genomic Data Science.

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