Epidemiology of the American Indians' burden and its likely genetic origins



It was not known until recently whether the endemic of cholesterol gallstones among certain southwestern American Indian tribes was unique among this ethnic group. With use of ultrasonography of the gallbladder and standard diagnostic criteria, gallstones are now found in epidemic proportions in 13 diverse American Indian tribes and communities living in Arizona, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas. We speculate that this predisposition is polygenic involving “thrifty” genes that conferred survival advantages when Paleo-Indians migrated from present-day Siberia to the Americas during the last Great Ice Age approximately 50,000 to 10,000 years ago. A reasonable hypothesis is that functioning of these genes promoted more efficient calorie utilization and storage in the form of adipose tissue. Beneficial results would have been operative during the isolation of Paleo-Indians in the Bering Strait land bridge (Beringia) when thrifty genes would have ensured sufficient fat reserves for survival of prolonged winters, successful pregnancy outcomes, and extended lactation periods. The authors' conjoint work on genetics of experimental cholesterol cholelithiasis in inbred mice promises help in pinpointing orthologous genetic loci (LITH genes) in the human genome. Moreover, the shared environments and homogeneity of American Indian tribes and communities should facilitate discovery of the ensembles of their common and rarer cholesterol gallstone genes. It is anticipated that knowledge of expression, polymorphisms, and functionality of LITH genes will help resolve the molecular mechanisms of this complex heterogeneous trait and thereby provide targets for novel therapies to prevent cholesterol cholelithiasis worldwide.