Adaptation to Extreme Environments in an Admixed Human Population from the Atacama Desert

Lucas Vicuña, Mario I. Fernandez, Cecilia Vial, Patricio Valdebenito, Eduardo Chaparro, Karena Espinoza, Annemarie Ziegler, Alberto Bustamante, Susana Eyheramendy

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13 Scopus citations


Inorganic arsenic (As) is a toxic xenobiotic and carcinogen associated with severe health conditions. The urban population from the Atacama Desert in northern Chile was exposed to extremely high As levels (up to 600 μg/l) in drinking water between 1958 and 1971, leading to increased incidence of urinary bladder cancer (BC), skin cancer, kidney cancer, and coronary thrombosis decades later. Besides, the Andean Native-American ancestors of the Atacama population were previously exposed for millennia to elevated As levels in water (∼120 μg/l) for at least 5,000 years, suggesting adaptation to this selective pressure. Here, we performed two genome-wide selection tests - PBSn1 and an ancestry-enrichment test - in an admixed population from Atacama, to identify adaptation signatures to As exposure acquired before and after admixture with Europeans, respectively. The top second variant selected by PBSn1 was associated with LCE4A-C1orf68, a gene that may be involved in the immune barrier of the epithelium during BC. We performed association tests between the top PBSn1 hits and BC occurrence in our population. The strongest association (P = 0.012) was achieved by the LCE4A-C1orf68 variant. The ancestry-enrichment test detected highly significant signals (P = 1.3 × 10-9) mapping MAK16, a gene with important roles in ribosome biogenesis during the G1 phase of the cell cycle. Our results contribute to a better understanding of the genetic factors involved in adaptation to the pathophysiological consequences of As exposure.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2468-2479
Number of pages12
JournalGenome Biology and Evolution
Issue number9
StatePublished - 22 Jul 2019


  • Native Americans
  • arsenic
  • bladder cancer
  • positive selection


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