Open Access Open Badges Research article

Inactive alleles of cytochrome P450 2C19 may be positively selected in human evolution

Ramatoulie E Janha1*, Archibald Worwui1, Kenneth J Linton3, Seif O Shaheen2, Fatoumatta Sisay-Joof1 and Robert T Walton2

Author Affiliations

1 Medical Research Council Unit The Gambia, The Gambia, West Africa

2 Centre for Public Health and Primary Care, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University, London, England

3 Centre for Cutaneous Research, Blizard Institute, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University, London, England

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:71  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-71

Published: 1 April 2014



Cytochrome P450 CYP2C19 metabolizes a wide range of pharmacologically active substances and a relatively small number of naturally occurring environmental toxins. Poor activity alleles of CYP2C19 are very frequent worldwide, particularly in Asia, raising the possibility that reduced metabolism could be advantageous in some circumstances. The evolutionary selective forces acting on this gene have not previously been investigated.

We analyzed CYP2C19 genetic markers from 127 Gambians and on 120 chromosomes from Yoruba, Europeans and Asians (Japanese + Han Chinese) in the Hapmap database. Haplotype breakdown was explored using bifurcation plots and relative extended haplotype homozygosity (REHH). Allele frequency differentiation across populations was estimated using the fixation index (FST) and haplotype diversity with coalescent models.


Bifurcation plots suggested conservation of alleles conferring slow metabolism (CYP2C19*2 and *3). REHH was high around CYP2C19*2 in Yoruba (REHH 8.3, at 133.3 kb from the core) and to a lesser extent in Europeans (3.5, at 37.7 kb) and Asians (2.8, at −29.7 kb). FST at the CYP2C19 locus was low overall (0.098). CYP2C19*3 was an FST outlier in Asians (0.293), CYP2C19 haplotype diversity < = 0.037, p <0.001.


We found some evidence that the slow metabolizing allele CYP2C19*2 is subject to positive selective forces worldwide. Similar evidence was also found for CYP2C19*3 which is frequent only in Asia. FST is low at the CYP2C19 locus, suggesting balancing selection overall. The biological factors responsible for these selective pressures are currently unknown. One possible explanation is that early humans were exposed to a ubiquitous novel toxin activated by CYP2C19. The genetic adaptation took place within the last 10,000 years which coincides with the development of systematic agricultural practices.

Positive selection; Cytochrome P450 2C19; Xenobiotics; Drug metabolism; Extended haplotype homozygosity; Bifurcation plots