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Most people carry at least one recessive disease mutation

The numbers are based on the study of a unique religious group called the Hutterites.

By Brooks Hays
Most people carry at least one recessive disease mutation
A recent study of Hutterite genealogy tracks prevalence of recessive gene mutations. Photo by Jack Dagley Photography/Shutterstock

CHICAGO, April 8 (UPI) -- According to a new study, the average American carries one to two genetic mutations that when matched with corresponding mutations can result in severe disorders or prenatal death.

Researchers were able to estimate the number mutations by studying the genealogical tree of a small, insular group of Hutterites in South Dakota, a religious community that came to North America from Germany in the 1870s.

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Geneticist Carole Ober, of the University of Chicago, has worked closely with the South Dakota group for the last 20 years, studying evidence of genetic disease. Research partner Molly Przeworski, a population geneticist at Columbia University, realized that the group's detailed genealogical records -- featuring a 13-generation family tree tracing the lineage of more than 1,500 living people -- could be used to estimate the prevalence of genetic mutations passed down from the group's 18th- and 19th-century founders.

"These records offered a fantastic opportunity to estimate disease mutation carrier rates in a new way that disentangles the effects of genetic and socioeconomic factors," lead author Ziyue Gao, a geneticist at Chicago, said in a press release.

The group's communal lifestyle with equal access to healthcare and food acted as a stabilizing factor, ensuring health outcomes were relatively uniform across the community. By tracing incidents of genetic diseases and prenatal deaths, researchers estimated that each of the group's founders likely carried at least one or two genetic mutations that cause sterility or death prior to adolescence.

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"This number is probably lower than the real average for most populations, but it is in the right ballpark," said Gao. "Most importantly, unlike previous estimates, it is unaffected by socioeconomic factors."

The new study was published this week in the journal Genetics.

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