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Baillieres Clin Haematol. 1993 Mar;6(1):215-62.

The population genetics of the haemoglobinopathies.

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MRC Molecular Haematology Unit, John Radcliffe Hospital, Headington, Oxford, U.K.


The haemoglobinopathies are the commonest single gene disorders known, and are so common in some regions of the world that the majority of the population carries at least one genetic abnormality affecting the structure or synthesis of the haemoglobin molecule. The prevalence of the common haemoglobinopathies (the alpha- and beta-thalassaemias, HbS, HbC and HbE) is almost certainly a result of the protection they provide against malaria, as the epidemiological evidence reviewed in this chapter shows. World-wide, the distributions of malaria and the common haemoglobinopathies largely overlap, and micro-epidemiological surveys have confirmed the close relationship between the disorders. However, there are complications to this picture which appear to undermine the malaria hypothesis. First, in some areas, malaria and haemoglobinopathies are not coincident. Second, the malaria hypothesis does not easily explain why no two regions of the world have the same haemoglobinopathy or combination of haemoglobinopathies. The majority of mutations have arisen only once and are regionally specific. By using molecular characterization of mutations and the analysis of haplotypes on haemoglobinopathy-bearing chromosomes it is possible to show how a combination of selection by malaria, genetic drift and population movements can explain the first complication. In order to explain the second, we have argued that malaria selection has operated relatively recently on human populations (within the last 5000 years). The present distribution is then seen as the result of selection elevating sporadic mutations in local populations. In the absence of sufficient gene flow to spread all mutations to all populations, the consequence is a patchwork distribution of haemoglobinopathies. Given time, we would expect the mutations that protect and do not compromise the health of their carriers to become widely disseminated, but it is likely that human intervention will alter this process of natural selection.

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