The ε4 allele of the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene is associated with increased cholesterol levels and heart disease. Population allele frequencies of APOE have previously been shown to vary, with ε4 frequencies generally increasing with latitude. We hypothesize that this trend resulted from natural selection protecting against low-cholesterol levels. In high-latitude cold environments and low-latitude hot environments, metabolic rate is elevated, which could require higher cholesterol levels. To explore this hypothesis, we compiled APOE allele frequencies, latitude, temperature, and elevation from populations around the world. ε4 allele frequencies show a curvilinear relationship with absolute latitude, with lowest frequencies found in the mid-latitudes where temperatures generally require less expenditure on cooling/thermogenesis. Controlling for population structure in a subset of populations did not appreciably change this pattern of association, consistent with selection pressures that vary by latitude shaping ε4 allele frequencies. Temperature records also predict APOE frequency in a curvilinear fashion, with lowest ε4 frequencies at moderate temperatures. The model fit between historical temperatures and ε4 is less than between latitude and ε4, but strengthened after correcting for estimated temperature differences during the Paleolithic. Contrary to our hypothesis, we find that elevation did not improve predictive power, and an integrated measure of the cholesterol effect of multiple APOE alleles was less related to latitude than was ε4 alone. Our results lend mixed support for a link between past temperature and human APOE allele distribution and point to the need to develop better models of past climate in future analyses.
- Population structure
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