Lactase persistence is the ability of adults to digest lactose in milk (Segurel & Bon, 2017). Mammals are generally distinguished by their mammary glands which gives females the ability to produce milk and feed their newborn children. The new born therefore requires the ability to breakdown the lactose in the milk to ensure its proper digestion (Segurel & Bon, 2017). Generally, humans lose the expression of lactase after weaning, which prevents them being able to breakdown lactose from dairy (Flatz, 1987).
My research is focused on the people of Turkana, a human pastoral population inhabiting Northwest Kenya. The people of Turkana are Nilotic people that are native to the Turkana district. There are currently no conclusive studies done on evidence for genetic lactase persistence in Turkana. Therefore, my research will be on the evolution of lactase persistence in the people of Turkana. The goal of this project is to investigate the evolutionary history of two genes with known involvement in lactase persistence, LCT and MCM6, in the Turkana. Variants in these genes have previously been identified to result in the ability to digest lactose post-weaning age. Furthermore, an additional study found that a closely related population to the Turkana, the Massai, showed stronger signals of recent selection for lactase persistence than Europeans in these genes. My goal is to characterize known variants associated with lactase persistence by calculating their allele frequencies in the Turkana and conduct selection scans to determine if LCT/MCM6 show signatures of positive selection. In doing this, we conducted a pilot study consisting of 10 female Turkana individuals and 10 females from four different populations from the 1000 genomes project namely: the Yoruba in Ibadan, Nigeria (YRI); Luhya in Webuye, Kenya; Utah Residents with Northern and Western European Ancestry (CEU); and the Southern Han Chinese. The allele frequency calculation suggested that the CEU (Utah Residents with Northern and Western European Ancestry) population had a higher lactase persistence associated allele frequency than all the other populations analyzed here, including the Turkana population. Our Tajima’s D calculations and analysis suggested that both the Turkana population and the four haplotype map populations shows signatures of positive selection in the same region. The iHS selection scans we conducted to detect signatures of positive selection on all five populations showed that the Southern Han Chinese (CHS), the LWK (Luhya in Webuye, Kenya) and the YRI (Yoruba in Ibadan, Nigeria) populations had stronger signatures of positive selection than the Turkana population. The LWK (Luhya in Webuye, Kenya) and the YRI (Yoruba in Ibadan, Nigeria) populations showed the strongest signatures of positive selection in this region. This project serves as a first step in the investigation of lactase persistence in the Turkana population and its evolution over time.