New Insight into the Impact of Neanderthal DNA on Today’s Humans

By: Katie Campbell

Approximately 100,000 years ago, humans began migrating out of Africa to Eurasia where they interbred with Neanderthals. Today, about 2% of non-African, human DNA is left over from the Neanderthals. Over the past few years, numerous studies have explored the relationship between these Neanderthal genes and modern diseases. Previous research had shown that skin and hair characteristics might be related to Neanderthal DNA, but a study published this week in the American Journal of Human Genetics performed by a team of German geneticists has concluded that these genes also contribute to phenotypic characteristics like skin tone, hair color, and even smoking status.

The research was performed using data obtained in the UK Biobank pilot study, which consists of genetic data and information about physical appearance, diet, sun exposure, behavior, and disease for more than 112,000 participants. Several Neanderthal alleles were observed to play a role in skin and hair appearance. Interestingly, some of these alleles are involved in lighter skin or hair color, while others are involved in darker shades. The authors of the study concluded that this suggests that Neanderthals may have varied in appearance as much as today’s humans.

The team was especially interested in characteristics impacted by sun exposure (such as skin and hair pigmentation, mood, and sleeping patterns), because the Neanderthals were already adapted to the lower levels of radiation present in Europe when the humans arrived. They speculate that Neanderthal alleles have persisted in our DNA because of the evolutionary advantage and diversification they contributed to the interbred gene pool, and continue to persist in maintaining gene variation in human genes today.

 

ScienceDaily. (2017, October 05). More traits associated with your Neanderthal DNA. Retrieved October 09, 2017, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/10/171005121106.htm