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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

A worldwide correlation of lactase persistence phenotype and genotypes

Yuval Itan12*, Bryony L Jones1, Catherine JE Ingram1, Dallas M Swallow1 and Mark G Thomas123

Author affiliations

1 Research Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University College London, London WC1E 6BT, UK

2 CoMPLEX (Centre for Mathematics & Physics in the Life Sciences and Experimental Biology), University College London, London WC1E 6BT, UK

3 AHRC Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity, Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY, UK

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:36  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-36

Published: 9 February 2010

Abstract

Background

The ability of adult humans to digest the milk sugar lactose - lactase persistence - is a dominant Mendelian trait that has been a subject of extensive genetic, medical and evolutionary research. Lactase persistence is common in people of European ancestry as well as some African, Middle Eastern and Southern Asian groups, but is rare or absent elsewhere in the world. The recent identification of independent nucleotide changes that are strongly associated with lactase persistence in different populations worldwide has led to the possibility of genetic tests for the trait. However, it is highly unlikely that all lactase persistence-associated variants are known. Using an extensive database of lactase persistence phenotype frequencies, together with information on how those data were collected and data on the frequencies of lactase persistence variants, we present a global summary of the extent to which current genetic knowledge can explain lactase persistence phenotype frequency.

Results

We used surface interpolation of Old World lactase persistence genotype and phenotype frequency estimates obtained from all available literature and perform a comparison between predicted and observed trait frequencies in continuous space. By accommodating additional data on sample numbers and known false negative and false positive rates for the various lactase persistence phenotype tests (blood glucose and breath hydrogen), we also apply a Monte Carlo method to estimate the probability that known lactase persistence-associated allele frequencies can explain observed trait frequencies in different regions.

Conclusion

Lactase persistence genotype data is currently insufficient to explain lactase persistence phenotype frequency in much of western and southern Africa, southeastern Europe, the Middle East and parts of central and southern Asia. We suggest that further studies of genetic variation in these regions should reveal additional nucleotide variants that are associated with lactase persistence.