Chinese, Malays more closely related genetically among S'pore's 3 main ethnic groups: study

Spectators wave the national flag as they wait for the start of the 54th National Day Parade on 9 August, 2019. (AFP via Getty Images file photo)

SINGAPORE — Did you know that the Chinese and Malays are more closely related among the three main ethnic groups in Singapore due to considerable “genetic intermingling”?

This discovery arose from the whole-genome sequencing (WGS) analysis of close to 5,000 Singaporeans, the world’s largest of its kind focusing on Asian populations, said the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) on Friday (18 October) in a press release.

The study was conducted on 2,780 Chinese, 903 Malays, and 1,127 Indians over two years to establish a genetic reference on the local population for subsequent studies.

This was done as a collaboration between scientists and clinicians from A*STAR’s GIS, National University Health System (NUHS), Singapore Eye Research Institute (SERI), Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH), National University Hospital (NUH), SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Precision Medicine (PRISM), National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

The team’s findings also revealed that there are 98.3 million genetic variants across the Singapore genomes, of which more than half have not been previously reported in public databases.

The genetic databank, published in peer-reviewed scientific journal Cell on Thursday, “provides valuable insights on the unique genetic diversity of Asian populations” as they are not extensively studied and their genetic make-up is poorly understood, it added.

“These have hindered efforts to discover disease-associated genes that impact on the health of individuals from these populations,” the press release added.

“The project provides a pilot genetic map of Asian populations that allows us to measure precisely the genetic contribution to disease, and combine it with other sources of data within a data-driven healthcare system,” said GIS executive director Professor Patrick Tan.

“Potentially, this will provide insights to prevent disease before it occurs, diagnose disease earlier, and ensure that therapies are deployed in a way that maximises clinical benefits while minimising adverse effects. This will benefit both Singapore and the Asian population at large by providing more effective and efficient healthcare services,” Prof Tan, who is also the director at SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Precision Medicine (PRISM), and a professor at Duke-NUS Medical School, added.

Asian Flush

The study revealed that Malays split from the Chinese about 24,800 years ago and experienced significant gene inflow with East Asians about 1,700 years ago, coinciding with the Austronesian expansion, a hypothesised historical migration of people from Taiwan/East Asia to Southeast Asia and further to remote Pacific and Oceania islands, said the release.

It also identified 20 candidate loci for natural selection where genome sequences were altered as a result of survival and adaptation to local environments during human evolution, of which 14 loci were found to be associated with human traits and diseases.

This may explain why certain diseases and human traits, such as ALDH2 deficiency (Asian Flush), are more or less common in Asians, the press release added.

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