Neanderthals had outsize effect on human biology

Aug 3, 2015

Photograph by Xin Lu/Getty

By Ewen Callaway

Our ancestors were not a picky bunch. Overwhelming genetic evidence shows that Homo sapiens had sex with Neander­thals, Denisovans and other archaic relatives. Now researchers are using large genomics studies to unravel the decidedly mixed contributions that these ancient romps made to human biology — from the ability of H. sapiens to cope with environments outside Africa, to the tendency of modern humans to get asthma, skin diseases and maybe even depression.

The proportion of the human genome that comes from archaic relatives is small. The genomes of most Europeans and Asians are 2–4% Neanderthal1, with Denisovan DNA making up about 5% of the genomes of Mela­nesians2 and Aboriginal Australians3. DNA slivers from other distant relatives probably pepper a variety of human genomes4.

But these sequences may have had an outsize effect on human biology. In some cases, they are very different from the corresponding H. sapiens DNA, notes population geneticist David Reich of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts — which makes it more likely that they could introduce useful traits. “Even though it’s only a couple or a few per cent of ancestry, that ancestry was sufficiently distant that it punched above its weight,” he says.

Last year, Reich co-led one of two teams that catalogued the Neanderthal DNA living on in modern-day humans5, 6. The studies hinted that Neanderthal versions of some genes may have helped Eurasians to reduce heat loss or grow thicker hair. But the evidence that these genes were beneficial was fairly weak.


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