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The genetic secret that protects isolated Greeks from heart disease

Genetic variant discovered among north Cretans

Mylopotamos is a small municipality in northern Crete. Image: Google Maps

Mylopotamos is a small municipality in northern Crete. Image: Google Maps

A group of villagers living in a remote part of northern Crete have a genetic variant that protects them from cardiovascular disease despite eating foods high in animal fat, researchers have discovered.

People from Mylopotamos live long and healthy lives despite their diets, which should cause health complications. In an attempt to unravel the mystery, researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute sequenced the genome of 250 locals and then used the information to obtain a more detailed view of some 3,2000 people for whom previous genetic information was unknown.

Scientists made a startling discovery: subjects’ genome contained a new genetic variant - rs145556679 – which was associated with lower levels of ‘bad’ natural fats – triglycerides – and ‘bad’ cholesterol, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

By studying isolated populations, we are able to identify those genetic variants that are at a higher frequency compared to cosmopolitan populations,” said study co-author Lorraine Southam. “This increases our power to detect if these variants are disease-causing.”

Mylopotamos residents can consider themselves to be unique. Out of a few thousand Europeans whose genome has been sequenced, just one – an individual in Tuscany, Italy – had the same variant. Another variant in the same gene has been associated with lower triglyceride levels within the Amish population in the USA.

Research into the Mylopotamos population was led by Eleftheria Zeggini, whose studies into longevity have attracted European Research Council funding.

The ERC is an EU research agency which encourages high-quality research through competitive funding mechanisms. The ERC’s sole criterion for selection is scientific excellence.

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