Han Chinese have ‘drinking gene’

New Shanghai-based research reverses the stereotypical Western notion that Chinese people cannot hold their liquor – at least, when it comes to pounding back grain-based alcohols like baijiu.

The study released by Fudan University in the UK’s journal Annuals of Human Genetics earlier this month found that people of East Asian descent, and particularly, Han Chinese, about 70 percent of the latter, in fact, carry the H7 gene.

A variant of alcohol dehydrogenase 1B (ADH-1-B), the H7 gene enables carriers to effectively reduce the amount of toxins found in alcohol, said researchers from Fudan University’s Human Genetics Laboratory, which studied 9,200 samples from 46 races over the span of a year.

The H7 gene was first found in Han Chinese some 2,800 years ago during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC-476 BC), when Chinese agriculture was rapidly developing and grains were used to make alcohol in China, said Li Hui, director of the laboratory that conducted the study. 

“Over time, grains have the ability to produce toxins if they aren’t properly stored,” Li, also a professor of life sciences at Fudan University, told the Global Times Wednesday. “In ancient times, a lot of Chinese people died after eating them.

“Only those who could break down the toxins in the grains survived,” he said. “The gene was then strengthened over the years among Han Chinese, and was passed down from generation to generation.”

Li said that European races failed to inherit the gene because unlike Chinese people, they tended to use fruits rather than grains to make alcohol.

“Even after the Middle Ages, Europeans rarely brewed alcohol from grains,” he said. “Therefore, grain-based alcohol played a much weaker role in the gene selection of European races.”

The theory further explains why a majority of Chinese nomad ethnic minorities also lack the gene, he added.

But, just because Chinese people have the gene, their ability to consume endless amounts of grain-based alcohols – such as the Chinese staple, baijiu, derived from a concoction of rice, wheat, barley and/or corn – is not guaranteed, said Li.

“They’ll still be in trouble if they lack the ability to properly digest alcohol,” he said. “To break down the compound acetaldehyde (believed to be a cause of hangovers), the body needs aldehyde dehydrogenase, an enzyme that roughly half of East Asian people lack.”

Source: Global Times

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