Background: Arsenic in drinking water causes severe health effects. Indigenous people in the South American Andes have likely lived with arsenic-contaminated drinking water for thousands of years. Inhabitants of San Antonio de los Cobres (SAC) in the Argentinean highlands generally carry an AS3MT (the major arsenic-metabolizing gene) haplotype associated with reduced health risks due to rapid arsenic excretion and lower urinary fraction of the monomethylated metabolite.Objectives: We hypothesized an adaptation to high-arsenic living conditions via a possible positive selection for protective AS3MT variants and compared AS3MT haplotype frequencies among different indigenous groups. Methods: Indigenous groups we evaluated were a) inhabitants of SAC and villages near Salta in northern Argentina (n = 346), b) three Native American populations from the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP; n = 25), and c) five Peruvian populations (n = 97). The last two groups have presumably lower historical exposure to arsenic.Results: We found a significantly higher frequency of the protective AS3MT haplotype in the SAC population (68.7%) compared with the HGDP (14.3%, p < 0.001, Fisher exact test) and Peruvian (50.5%, p < 0.001) populations. Genome-wide microsatellite (n = 671) analysis showed no detectable level of population structure between SAC and Peruvian populations (measure of population differentiation FST = 0.006) and low levels of structure between SAC and HGDP populations (FST < 0.055 for all pairs of populations compared). Conclusions: Because population stratification seems unlikely to explain the differences in AS3MT haplotype frequencies, our data raise the possibility that, during a few thousand years, natural selection for tolerance to the environmental stressor arsenic may have increased the frequency of protective variants of AS3MT. Further studies are needed to investigate this hypothesis.
- Dimethylarsinic acid
- Drinking water
- Human genome diversity project
- Methylarsonic acid