Unexplained Mysteries :: Civilisation has left its mark on our genes

Darwin’s fingerprints can be found all over the human genome. A detailed look at human DNA has shown that a significant percentage of our genes have been shaped by natural selection in the past 50,000 years, probably in response to aspects of modern human culture such as the emergence of agriculture and the shift towards living in densely populated settlements.One way to look for genes that have recently been changed by natural selection is to study mutations called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – single-letter differences in the genetic code. The trick is to look for pairs of SNPs that occur together more often than would be expected from the chance genetic reshuffling that inevitably happens down the generations. Such correlations are known as linkage disequilibrium, and can occur when natural selection favours a particular variant of a gene, causing the SNPs nearby to be selected as well.Robert Moyzis and his colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, US, searched for instances of linkage disequilibrium in a collection of 1.6 million SNPs scattered across all the human chromosomes. They then looked carefully at the instances they found to distinguish the consequences of natural selection from other phenomena, such as random inversions of chunks of DNA, which can disrupt normal genetic reshuffling.This analysis suggested that around 1800 genes, or roughly 7% of the total in the human genome, have changed under the influence of natural selection within the past 50,000 years. A second analysis using a second SNP database gave similar results. That is roughly the same proportion of genes that were altered in maize when humans domesticated it from its wild ancestors.

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