Roman empire effect on our genes, and AIDS

Daily Mail

What, as the old Monty Python question goes, have the Romans ever done for us?

Well,
apart from the usual answers of roads, sanitation and a fondness for
wine, it appears they have also made us more vulnerable to HIV.

According
to genetic research published on Wednesday, when Julius Caesar made his
first exploratory visit to our shores in 55BC he triggered a chain of
events which may have lowered our resistance to the virus which leads
to Aids.

The theory is that as the Roman Empire spread so did an
unknown illness that killed those carrying a gene that would one day
give their descendants resistance to the virus.

As a
result, today’s inhabitants of nations once conquered by the Romans
tend to lack the gene and so are more susceptible to HIV.

For
instance, only 4 per cent of Greeks carry the gene, compared with more
than 15 per cent of people in parts of northern Europe untouched by the
Romans.

In England and Wales, which were occupied by the Romans
for 400 years, up to 11 per cent have the gene which is called
CCR5-Delta32 and stops HIV worming its way into the body’s cells.

People with the gene are more resistant to infection and also take longer to develop Aids.

Overall,
the distribution of the gene reflects the changing boundary of the
Roman Empire from 500BC to AD500, said Eric Faure who made the link
after studying nearly 19,000 DNA samples from across Europe.

Alternative
theories include the idea that the protective gene originated in
Scandinavia and was spread north and east by the Vikings.

But the pattern of Viking migration does not support this, the journal New Scientist reports.

Although
the Romans may have had naturally low levels of the gene, interbreeding
is not thought to be to blame for it being lost from populations
elsewhere.

Instead, it is thought the invaders introduced a disease to which people carrying CCR5-Delta32 were particularly susceptible.

As the Roman Empire spread, it took with them this disease, killing off people with the gene.

And
that meant other versions of the gene – which do not protect against
HIV – flourished, increasing susceptibility to the virus today.

The
disease that wiped out people with CCR5-Delta 32 may have been spread
by cats, donkeys or even mosquitoes, said Dr Eric Faure, of the
University of Provence in Marseille.

But, in answer to the
question posed by the hopeless revolutionaries in Monty Python’s Life
of Brian, there is much for which we can thank Julius Caesar and the
rest of the Romans.

As well as roads and central heating,
they came up with miles, feet and inches. They also brought organised
fire-fighting to Britain, in the form of chains of buckets of water,
pumps and hooks for pulling off burning roofs

And when not
marching up and down their roads to defend the empire, the Romans
introduced the concept of leisurely meals as well as a host of foods
including pears, apricots, carrots, coriander and asparagus.

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