Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : January 4th 2016 Contents A29
Monday, January 4, 2016 www.guardian.co.tt Guardian
Geneticists found clues to a disease of iron storage
in the remains of several Bronze Age inhabitants
of what s now Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland.
An inherited disorder that stems from a problem
in the way the body handles iron in the blood has
been called a "Celtic Curse" because of the condition s
high prevalence among people with ancestry in the
British Isles and Ireland.
But according to researchers writing recently in
the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, hemochromatosis has deeper roots on the
Emerald Isle than anyone knew; even some prehistoric
residents of the island carried genetic mutations that
cause the condition.
Researchers recently found such a mutation in the
remains of two ancient people, a Neolithic woman
who lived about 5,000 years ago, and an early Bronze
Age man who lived about 4,000 years ago.
The several different forms of hemochromatosis
all cause people to accumulate more iron than the
body needs. Symptoms can include organ damage
and a bronze or gray tinge to the skin, as well as
fatigue, weakness and joint pain. The Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more
than a million Americans have gene mutations that
can lead to this iron overload.
Though the mutations are present at birth, symp-
toms rarely appear before middle age, and people
only develop the disease if they inherit copies of the
mutated gene from both parents.
"The prevalence is growing because awareness of
the disease has been growing," says Daniel Bradley,
a geneticist at Trinity College Dublin and an author
of the report.
He s one of a group of geneticists who teamed up
with archaeologists at Queen s University Belfast to
study ancient Irish genomes in the hopes of under-
standing more about early migration patterns and
the origins of disease.
One set of remains were those of a woman who
lived 5,000 years ago near what s now Ballynahatty,
"She would have been from one of the early farming
communities in Ireland," Bradley says. "They were
the people who built a lot of our iconic megalithic
architecture." The scientists also analysed the remains
of three men who lived about a thousand years later
on Rathlin Island, off the coast of what s now Northern
Bradley says at a certain point, there usually isn t
much human left in human remains, it s mostly
decayed or replaced by bacteria. But the bodies of
the woman and one of the men were very well-pre-
served, he says, particularly a piece of each skull s
"It s a bone of the inner ear attached to the temple.
It s the densest bone in the human body," Bradley
explains. The researchers took samples from inside
those bones to sequence the genome.
The woman, they discovered, had one of the gene
variants responsible for hemochromatosis. The man
had a different mutation, one that has been associated
with a more severe form of the disorder that s most
common in people of European ancestry.
"You can t draw a line around Ireland and say
hemochromatosis occurs only inside it," says Bradley,
but, for unknown reasons, it did seem to become
more common in that region.
One theory is that it could have been an evolu-
tionary advantage when diets were iron-poor during
the Neolithic period. Another is that the mutation
may have helped people shift to a diet dominated
by grain instead of meat. Or it may have helped them
deal better with parasites. But these are all just
hypotheses, Bradley says.
What is known is that seeds of the region s relatively
high rate of hemochromatosis date back about 4,000
years. So might the beginnings of a few other genetic
Today, says Bradley, "Ireland is the world capital
of lactose tolerance", most people there can digest
milk into adulthood. Only some of the ancient human
remains discovered on Rathlin Island had the genetic
mutation that would allow them to do so. Blue eyes
may have started to appear more frequently then,
too, Bradley says, as well as a certain version of the
Y chromosome that s prevalent among Irish men.
"By the Bronze Age, we re looking at a genome
that s been more or less well-established," says Bradley.
He and his colleagues plan to continue their genetic
studies on a hunt for "other medically significant vari-
ants and to chart their prehistory," Bradley says. (NPR)
Clues to 'Celtic Curse' stretch
back to Bronze Age Ireland
Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland. PHOTO: CHRISGEL RYAN CRUZ/FLICKR
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