Possible positive selection for an arsenic-protective haplotype in humans

Carina M. Schlebusch, Cecil M. Lewis, Marie Vahter, Karin Engström, Raúl Y. Tito, Alexandra J. Obregón-Tito, Doris Huerta, Susan I. Polo, Ángel C. Medina, Tom D. Brutsaert, Gabriela Concha, Mattias Jakobsson, Karin Broberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)53-58
Number of pages6
JournalEnvironmental Health Perspectives
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2013


  • AS3MT
  • DMA
  • Dimethylarsinic acid
  • Drinking water
  • Human genome diversity project
  • MMA
  • Methylarsonic acid

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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