Desert people evolve to drink water poisoned with deadly arsenic

PEOPLE in a south American desert have evolved to detoxify potentially deadly arsenic that laces their water supply.

For settlers in the Quebrada Camarones region of Chile’s Atacama desert some 7000 years ago, water posed more than a bit of a problem. They were living in the world’s driest non-polar desert, and several of their most readily available water sources, such as rivers and wells, had high levels of arsenic, which can cause a variety of health problems.

The arsenic contamination here exceeds 1 milligram per litre: the highest levels in the Americas, and over 100 times the World Health Organization’s safe limits. There are virtually no alternative water sources, and yet, somehow, people have survived in the area. Could it be that arsenic’s negative effects on human health, such as inducing miscarriages, acted as a natural selection pressure that made this population evolve adaptations to it? A new study suggests this is indeed so.

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