Ancient DNA Reveals European Genetic History

Posted: Nov 24 2015, 6:49am CST | by , in News | Latest Science News

Ancient DNA Reveals European Genetic History
A petrous bone like those used in the study. Image: Rick Groleau
  • Ancient European Farmers had the Farming Gene encoded into their DNA

It has been discovered that ancient European farmers had the farming gene encoded into the very structure of their DNA.

The agricultural revolution hit the whole of Europe sometime 8500 years ago. And it was a real game changer so much so that the practice of farming got encoded into the very genes of Europeans.

The way of life or lifestyle of Europeans got fixed thanks to this monumental change. Up until now, scientists knew of changes in DNA via looking at current populations of people. However, our modern genes show a series of imprints the roots of which lie in the distant past. And any factors linked to events are not very prominent in the scheme of things.

An international team of researchers has made a series of findings which got published in the journal Nature recently. These findings were regarding an analysis of ancient human DNA.

“It allows us to put a time and date on selection and to directly associate selection with specific environmental changes, in this case the development of agriculture and the expansion of the first farmers into Europe,” said Iain Mathieson, a research fellow in genetics at Harvard Medical School and first author of the study.

We can now pinpoint the exact time that a selection took place and also make out which environmental changes caused that selection in the first place. The start of the agricultural revolution along with the outspread of the first farmers into European loci is what is under the focal lens here.

Via improved DNA extraction methods and a comprehensive genome database, the results which were unearthed were substantial and quite poignant. For one thing, the shift from a hunting gathering nature to one of sedentary farming was of significant importance.

Genetic materials also underwent similar changes. Such factors included: height, liability to lactose intolerance, fatty acid metabolism, vitamin D levels in the body, white Caucasian skin and blue eye hue. The epidemic of celiac disease was also linked to European farmers on a genetic level.

Other samples gave evidence of immune system diseases. The Neolithic period was a time when people came into contact with each other on a mass base. And they also were in contact with animals that got domesticated.

“The Neolithic period involved an increase in population density, with people living close to one another and to domesticated animals,” said Wolfgang Haak, one of three senior authors of the study, a research fellow at the University of Adelaide and group leader in molecular anthropology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

“Although that finding did not come fully as a surprise,” he added, “it was great to see the selection happening in ‘real time.’”

It all came as no big surprise that when living entities are in close proximity they end up contracting certain diseases. Selection also worked its relentless magic of weeding out the unfit specimens. Europe’s first farmers probably came from Anatolia.

Through a series of struggles and adaptations, the farmers eked out a living from the conditions of scarcity. It’s all there in the DNA record which is like an index of everything which occurred in the lives of our early ancestors.

And to think that just a generation ago such things would have been impossible to prove or disprove. It was the play of genes which ultimately led to vital changes in the conditions of both human constitutions and culture.

“It’s a great mystery how present-day populations got to be the way we are today, both in terms of how our ancestors moved around and intermingled and how populations developed the adaptations that help us survive a bit better in the different environments in which we live,” said co-senior author David Reich, professor of genetics at HMS.

“Now that ancient DNA is available at the genome-wide scale and in large sample sizes, we have an extraordinary new instrument for studying these questions.”

“From an archaeological perspective, it’s quite amazing,” said co-senior author Ron Pinhasi, associate professor of archaeology at University College Dublin.

“The Neolithic revolution is perhaps the most important transition in human prehistory. We now have proof that people did actually go from Anatolia into Europe and brought farming with them. For more than 40 years, people thought it was impossible to answer that question.”

“Second,” he continued, “we now have evidence that genetic selection occurred along with the changes in lifestyle and demography, and that selection continued to happen following the transition.”

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/20" rel="author">Sumayah Aamir</a>
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