The capacity to drink and tolerate milk may have been of tremendous importance for the cultural development of Europe. In a major EU project, being launched today and coordinated by Uppsala University in Sweden, researchers will now study when and where this capacity emerged and what it entailed.
Lactose tolerance, which provides the ability to drink milk as an adult, varies across countries. In Scandinavia, excluding Finland, it is widely disseminated. Most of us tolerate dairy products without any problems. The question of just where this ability arose and how it spread has spawned various theories. By gathering 15 research teams with different specializations in genetics, organic chemistry, and archeology, it will hopefully now be possible to find out what the truth really is.
"The oldest pottery shards shown to contain milk were found in southeastern Europe, more precisely in what today is northeastern Greece. We believe that the mutation once grew common there and then became fundamental to the development of agrarian culture," says Anders Götherstam, who will be coordinating the project.
The researchers will follow the tracks of milk throughout Europe, making use of a model for the spread of genes in order to follow the dissemination of the mutation. In this model the frequency of the mutation increases along the ‘frontline' of the dissemination¬-that is, we in Scandinavia, on the periphery, should thus have the highest frequency of the specific gene.
"Mutations can be selected negatively or positively throughout evolution and history. But no other mutation seems to have had so positive a selection in the last ten thousand years as the one that creates lactose tolerance."
The project, which is starting this week and involves 13 universities in Europe, is receiving €3.3 million for four years, which will also fund educational efforts. The other research teams come from Stockholm, the UK, Ireland, The Netherlands, Germany, France, and Denmark. A kick-off conference will take place in York on September 13-15.
"This funding will tie these research teams tightly together, which will result in lots of new research and new interpretations," says Anders Götherstam.
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