Recent Studies Reveal Neanderthal DNA at Work in Modern Humans

Friday, 04 January 2019 - 12:31PM
Medical Tech
Genetic Engineering
Friday, 04 January 2019 - 12:31PM
Recent Studies Reveal Neanderthal DNA at Work in Modern Humans
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Composite adapted from Public Domain Pictures/Pixabay
There were a slew of new scientific findings about Neanderthals in 2018, ranging from heartwarming (like the fact that Neanderthals may have been selfless caregivers) to gruesome (like the discovery of the remains of a Neanderthal child that were apparently digested by a giant bird). Now, recent studies have revealed that the legacy of the Neanderthals lives on in the DNA of modern humans...though the implications aren't always positive.

Since sequencing Neanderthal DNA in 2010, scientists have known that humans and Neanderthals interbred, creating offspring that shared the DNA of both. Though the extent and timing of this interbreeding is still being investigated, researchers have already begun looking into how bits of Neanderthal DNA manifest themselves in people's health and appearance. Until recently, though, researchers haven't been able to access large enough sample sizes to draw connections between Neanderthal genetic material (which is relatively rare) and medical issues.

Following the publication of a study led by Tony Capra of Vanderbilt University, which searched for traces of Neanderthal DNA in a pool of 28,000 Americans, scientists learned that DNA variants unique to Neanderthals may cause an increased likelihood of depression, skin lesions, blood clots, and other illnesses. More recently, a team from Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, led by computational biologist Janet Kelso, has delved into the UK Biobank, a collection of roughly 500,000 genetic and health profiles belonging to British citizens and found more evidence that Neanderthal DNA is still shaping the lives of humans.

According to Kelso, "...we could actually look and say: 'We see a Neanderthal version of the gene and we can measure its effect on phenotype in many people-how often they get sunburned, what color their hair is, and what color their eyes are." In addition, they found correlations between Neanderthal DNA and the likelihood that a person is a smoker, an evening or morning person, as well as increased risks for sunburn and depression.
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