Annals of Human Genetics

Apolipoprotein E (APOE) allele distribution in the world. Is APOE*4 a ‘thrifty’ allele?

R. M. CORBO a1a2c1 and R. SCACCHI a2
a1 Department of Genetics and Molecular Biology, University ‘La Sapienza’, Rome
a2 CNR Center of Evolutionary Genetics, Rome


Apolipoprotein E (APOE = gene, apoE = protein) plays a central role in plasma lipoprotein metabolism and in lipid transport within tissues. The APOE shows a genetic polymorphism determined by three common alleles, APOE*2, APOE*3, APOE*4 and the product of the three alleles differs in several functional properties. APOE is involved in the development of certain pathological conditions. In particular, the APOE*4 allele is a risk factor for susceptibility to coronary artery disease (CAD) and Alzheimer's Disease (AD). In the present study we analyzed the APOE allele distribution in the world. The APOE*3 is the most frequent in all the human groups, especially in populations with a long-established agricultural economy like those of the Mediterranean basin (0.849–0.898). The frequency of APOE*4, the ancestral allele, remains higher in populations like Pygmies (0.407) and Khoi San (0.370), aborigines of Malaysia (0.240) and Australia (0.260), Papuans (0.368), some Native Americans (0.280), and Lapps (0.310) where an economy of foraging still exists, or food supply is (or was until the recent past) scarce and sporadically available. The APOE*2 frequency fluctuates with no apparent trend (0.145–0.02) and is absent in Native Americans. We suggest that the APOE*4, based on some functional properties it has and on its distribution among human populations, could be identified as a ‘thrifty’ allele. The exposure of APOE*4 to the contemporary environmental conditions (Western diet, longer lifespans) could have rendered it a susceptibility allele for CAD and AD. The absence of the association of APOE*4 with CAD and AD in Sub-Saharan Africans, and its presence in African Americans, seems to confirm this hypothesis.

(Received April 7 1999)
(Accepted July 8 1999)

c1 Correspondence: R. M. Corbo, Department of Genetics and Molecular Biology, University ‘La Sapienza’, P.le A. Moro 5,00185 Rome, Italy. Tel. +39 06 49912825; fax +39 06 4456866. E-mail: