A recent study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution shows how dietary changes since the Agricultural Revolution have led to genetic adaptations among European populations.

The study is the first to compare genetic variants from before and after the Agricultural Revolution, which represented a wide-scale transition of many cultures from a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one of agriculture and settlement. Prior to the introduction of farming roughly 10,000 years ago, most European populations were hunter-gatherers who subsisted on primarily animal-based diets and some seafood. Farming was first introduced in southern Europe and spread northward, leading to the adoption of more plant-based diets.

Researchers reviewed data from 25 different studies that examined DNA from fossils and archaeological remains, and compared it to DNA from contemporary populations. They discovered that as European diets changed over time, adaptations occurred in the fatty acid desaturase (FADS) genes. Different variants, called alleles, were identified for the FADS1 gene, all of which correspond to different diets.

Farmers who ate vegetarian diets displayed an increased frequency of an allele that directed cells to produce enzymes that helped carriers metabolize plant foods. The FADS1 variant found in these individuals allowed them to synthesize omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, important fatty acids for proper brain development. While these fatty acids can be obtained from animal sources, they are largely lacking in plant-based diets. Vegetarians require the FADS1 enzymes to synthesize long-chain fatty acids from short-chain fatty acids found in plant foods.

Prior to the introduction of farming, European hunter-gatherers typically carried the opposite version of the FADS1 gene, which limits the activity of the FADS1 enzymes and is better suited to people on a diet high in meat and seafood.

Analysis of the FADS1 genetic variants showed that the allele corresponding to plant-based diets decreased in Europe until the Agricultural Revolution, after which it began rising sharply. The opposite version of the gene, found in hunter-gatherers, also rose until the introduction of farming, and then began declining. Researchers also found variances in the frequency of alleles from northern to southern Europe, which correspond to the extent to which plant foods were relied upon in regional diets. While all farmers relied heavily on plant-based diets, northern Europeans included more plant foods in their diet, such as milk and seafood.

The study highlights the role of diet in human evolution, and has implications for the field of nutrigenomics, or the study of the interaction between nutrition and genetics. Further research could eventually help healthcare professionals use ancestral informative markers for making nutritional recommendations in a clinical setting.

Many other recent studies in the field of nutrigenomics have allowed researchers to identify genetic markers associated with various diets. Certain genetic variants can help determine if individuals are predisposed to benefit from low-carb, low-fat, or Mediterranean diets. Vivaliti DNA examines more than 80 different genetic markers to reveal how your body responds to different foods, which exercises are most beneficial for you, which eating behaviors you are most susceptible to, and more. Download a free sample report to discover how Vivaliti DNA can help you reach your health and wellness goals.