Will Evolution Protect Humans From Alcoholism?

By Beth Leipholtz 03/19/18

Researchers examined a genetic variant that could make it extremely difficult to consume large amounts of alcohol.

illustration of the evolution from primate to man

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, found that humans could possibly be evolving in such a way that alcoholism may not be such a rampant issue in the future. 

According to Newsweek, the authors of the study, Kelsey Elizabeth Johnson and Benjamin Voight, analyzed data from the DNA of more than 2,500 people in the 1000 Genomes Project. These individuals spanned 20 population groups across four continents over a seven-year period. 

According to Phys.org, the researchers looked at different population groups for emerging variants that could shed light on the evolutionary changes humans are undergoing. Johnson and Voight said they were able to determine five genetic “hot spots”: resistance to malaria in African populations, an amino acid change in Europeans, two sections of DNA left over from interbreeding with Neanderthals, and an ADH variant.

According to Phys.org, "the ADH gene is responsible for inducing production of alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme that breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde, which is then converted to acetate by another process." 

These genetic variations were observed in five populations across different continents, “making the changes unlikely to be solely the product of genetic inheritance,” according to Newsweek.

One "anomaly" in the data, researchers state, is that ADH variants were not as common in European and American populations as they were in others. This may be due to markers being overlooked in the data.

Johnson and Voight state that while the variants seem to “protect against alcoholism,” the reasoning as to why is unknown. Their thought is that it could break down alcohol more quickly, resulting in people who drink alcohol to feel sick right away, which would likely stop them from drinking more. However, the researchers say that the genetic variant alone is probably not enough to act as a "one-step solution" to alcohol dependence.

"Alcohol dependence is a complex human trait—an individual's risk for alcohol dependence is a function of genetic background, environment, and behavior," said Voight. "So the contribution from this specific genetic change has to be viewed in the context of the myriad of other factors that perhaps contribute a lot more."

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.