Solving an ancient dairy mystery could help cure modern food ills | 9/10/2019 | Staff
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Genghis Khan's conquering armies fed on dried curd as they crossed the vast steppes of Eurasia, ancient Romans imported pungent cheeses from France, and Bedouin tribes crossing the Arabian Desert have for centuries survived on camel's milk.

Dairy has been central to people's existence since at least 6,500 years BC.

Mystery - Heart - Number - Problems - Food

But a mystery lies at its heart which, if solved, could help explain the rising number of modern dietary problems ranging from food intolerances to allergies, researchers say.

Scientists are trying to explain why people began consuming animals' milk before they developed genetic mutations which enabled them to digest it properly.

Mutations - People - Enzyme - Milk - Sugars

The mutations mean people produce lactase—an enzyme which breaks down milk sugars, called lactose—after they reach adulthood. Without the mutations, lactase production stops in childhood, which can lead to lactose intolerance.

"There is at least a 4,000 year gap between when we see the earliest evidence of dairying and when we see first the evidence of any mutations anywhere in the world," said Professor Christina Warinner, head of microbiome sciences at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.

% - World - Population - Today - Persistence

Only about 35% of the world's population today have lactase persistence mutations. They exist mainly in European populations—especially northwestern Europe—and their descendants, and in parts of the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

"If we can work out the evolutionary history and mechanics of lactose intolerance (how diet, human genetics, and gut microbes interact), we will have a powerful model for how to tackle other complex digestive disorders and food allergies," said Prof. Warinner.

Dairy - Heritage - Bacteria - Group - People

Studying the dairy heritage and gut bacteria of a group of people who do not have lactase persistence—Mongolian herders—may help crack the dairy mystery.

"They have been dairying in Mongolia for thousands of years, yet today the people of Mongolia do not have the mutations that allow them to...
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