Leukocyte telomere length (LTL), which reflects telomere length in other somatic tissues, is a complex genetic trait. Eleven SNPs have been shown in genome-wide association studies to be associated with LTL at a genome-wide level of significance within cohorts of European ancestry. It has been observed that LTL is longer in African Americans than in Europeans. The underlying reason for this difference is unknown. Here we show that LTL is significantly longer in sub-Saharan Africans than in both Europeans and African Americans. Based on the 11 LTL-associated alleles and genetic data in phase 3 of the 1000 Genomes Project, we show that the shifts in allele frequency within Europe and between Europe and Africa do not fit the pattern expected by neutral genetic drift. Our findings suggest that differences in LTL within Europeans and between Europeans and Africans is influenced by polygenic adaptation and that differences in LTL between Europeans and Africans might explain, in part, ethnic differences in risks for human diseases that have been linked to LTL.
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