APOL1 Nephropathy: A Population Genetics and Evolutionary Medicine Detective Story

Semin Nephrol. 2017 Nov;37(6):490-507. doi: 10.1016/j.semnephrol.2017.07.002.


Common DNA sequence variants rarely have a high-risk association with a common disease. When such associations do occur, evolutionary forces must be sought, such as in the association of apolipoprotein L1 (APOL1) gene risk variants with nondiabetic kidney diseases in populations of African ancestry. The variants originated in West Africa and provided pathogenic resistance in the heterozygous state that led to high allele frequencies owing to an adaptive evolutionary selective sweep. However, the homozygous state is disadvantageous and is associated with a markedly increased risk of a spectrum of kidney diseases encompassing hypertension-attributed kidney disease, focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, human immunodeficiency virus nephropathy, sickle cell nephropathy, and progressive lupus nephritis. This scientific success story emerged with the help of the tools developed over the past 2 decades in human genome sequencing and population genomic databases. In this introductory article to a timely issue dedicated to illuminating progress in this area, we describe this unique population genetics and evolutionary medicine detective story. We emphasize the paradox of the inheritance mode, the missing heritability, and unresolved associations, including cardiovascular risk and diabetic nephropathy. We also highlight how genetic epidemiology elucidates mechanisms and how the principles of evolution can be used to unravel conserved pathways affected by APOL1 that may lead to novel therapies. The APOL1 gene provides a compelling example of a common variant association with common forms of nondiabetic kidney disease occurring in a continental population isolate with subsequent global admixture. Scientific collaboration using multiple experimental model systems and approaches should further clarify pathomechanisms further, leading to novel therapies.

Keywords: APOL1; African American; FSGS; HIVAN; admixture; autophagy; hypertension-attributed nephropathy; podocyte.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Apolipoprotein L1 / genetics*
  • Blacks / genetics*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / genetics
  • Chromosome Mapping
  • Diabetic Nephropathies / epidemiology
  • Diabetic Nephropathies / genetics
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Gene Frequency
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate / genetics
  • Linkage Disequilibrium
  • Mutation
  • Penetrance
  • Renal Insufficiency, Chronic / genetics*
  • Trypanosomiasis, African / genetics


  • APOL1 protein, human
  • Apolipoprotein L1