Modern European genes may favour a plant-based diet

No misprints here, it may be that we (Europeans) are genetically geared towards a plant-based diet. Sorry steakhouse lovers.

Well, those buddha bowls certainly look appetising. In my opinion, anyway.

In May of this year, a Cornell study was published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, outlining how the introduction of farming in Europe 10,000 years ago led to genetic adaptations that correlated with a shift from a predominantly meat/seafood-based diet to a plant-based diet.

European populations were hunter-gatherers before the Neolithic (Agricultural) revolution, a diet consisting of mainly meat with some seafood. However, after the emergence of farming in Southern Europe that then spread upwards through Northern Europe, European farmers turned to a primarily plant-based diet.

The investigation revealed that these dietary practices are reflected in the genes of Europeans. The study is the first to separate and compare genetic adaptations that occurred both before and after the Neolithic revolution. The research team collected data from over 25 studies that examined DNA from fossils and archaeological remains, an age range of 30,000 to 2,000 years old, as well as DNA from contemporary populations.


The frequencies of vegetarian and seafood/meat alleles, different versions of the same gene, over the past 30,000 years in Europe. Credit: Kaixiong Ye

The adaptations occurred in an important genomic region containing three FADS (fatty acid desaturase) genes. Short science lesson. FADS genes convert oleic acid to linoleic acid and α-linoleic acid in order for us to synthesise long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs), ideal for human health and essential for development. Science lesson over (rejoice). Different FADS1 alleles (versions of the same gene) corresponded to the different diets that were adopted.

“Changing diets instantaneously switched which alleles are advantageous, a result of marked natural selection for the level that a crucial gene is expressed,” said Alon Keinan, Associate Professor of Computational and Population Genomics at Cornell and the paper’s senior author.

The study could impact nutrigenomics, the growing field of nutritional genomics. Based on ancestry, clinicians could potentially tailor a person’s diet specifically to their genome for health purposes.

Once European farmers shifted to a vegetarian diet, there was an increased frequency in the allele (gene version) that coded for an enzyme to help metabolise (break down) plants. A result of natural selection, this allele provided a health advantage that allowed the farmers to have more children in order to pass the genetic variant on to them.

As stated earlier, the FADS gene synthesises LCPUFAs that are crucial for proper human brain development, controlling inflammation and immune response. The FADS1 gene found in the farmers synthesise omega-3 and omega-6 LCPUFAs and whilst they can be obtained directly from animal-based diets, they are absent from plant-based diets. Those on a plant-based diet require FADS1 enzymes to biosynthesise LCPUFA from short-chain fatty acids found in plants (roots, vegetables and seeds).

Analysis of the ancient DNA showed that pre-farming, the hunter-gatherer animal-based diet favoured the opposite version of the FADS1 gene, which limits the activity of its enzymes and is more suited to those on a meat/seafood-based diet. Analysis of the frequencies of these alleles in Europeans showed that the plant-based diet allele decreased in number until the Neolithic Revolution, after which it spiked up in number. Conversely, the opposite gene version (found in hunter-gatherers) increased until farming was introduced, after which it sharply declined.

Harvard University anthropologist Ofer Bar-Yosef, a Neolithic Revolution specialist and co-author of the study, assisted in trawling through anthropological literature for evidence of the diets of pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherers and post-Neolithic farmers in different parts of Europe.

The research group also discovered a gradient in the frequencies of these alleles from north to south since the Neolithic Era, including today’s populations. All farmers relied heavily on plant-based diets, but that reliance was stronger in the south, as compared to northern Europeans – whose farmer ancestors drank more milk and included seafood in their diet, a genetic trait that exists today.

“We made predictions based on our evolutionary observations, and then with Ofer’s assistance, we were able to verify them and to conclude that diet was the driving force behind all our evolutionary results,” said Kaixiong Ye, a postdoctoral researcher in Keinan’s lab and the paper’s lead author.

So, it turns out that some of you (us) may in fact be geared towards a plant-based diet, genetically. If so, that’s a pretty cool thing to think about.

Considering that meat sources will eventually cease at some point in the future as the planet can’t sustain the increased grazing of animals, perhaps a more plant-centric diet is something to consider. For some of us? It’s even genetically more beneficial.

Thanks for reading, yo.


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