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Neanderthal Genes Influence Human Biology, Study Finds

Genetic data from 300k Brits reveals impact on immune system, metabolism, and more

How quickly we can burn off calories or fight off disease could all be down to genes inherited from Neanderthals, a new study has revealed.

A team of scientists used genetic data from the UK Biobank from around 300,000 Brits without African ancestry to identify the influence of Neanderthal genes.

Between one and four percent of the genome in the ancestors of those who migrated out of Africa are Neanderthal.

Humans interbred with our Neanderthal cousins around 50,000 years ago before the species became extinct.

The study applies only to descendants of those who migrated from Africa before Neanderthals died out, and in particular, those of European ancestry.

The American researchers analyzed more than 235,000 genetic variants likely to have originated from Neanderthals.

They found that 4,303 of those differences in DNA are playing a substantial role in modern humans and influencing 47 distinct genetic traits, such as how fast someone can burn calories or a person’s natural immune resistance to certain diseases.

Senior investigator Sriram Sankararaman, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said: “Examination of these variants reveals their substantial impact on genes that are important for the immune system, development, and metabolism.

Humans interbred with our Neanderthal cousins around 50,000 years ago before the species became extinct. PHOTO BY PICKLED STARDUST/UNSPLASH 

“For scientists studying human evolution interested in understanding how interbreeding with archaic humans tens of thousands of years ago still shapes the biology of many present-day humans, this study can fill in some of those blanks.

“More broadly, our findings can also provide new insights for evolutionary biologists looking at how the echoes of these types of events may have both beneficial and detrimental consequences.”

The team, including Cornell University in New York, developed a new suite of computational genetic tools to address the genetic effects of interbreeding between the species.

Study co-lead author April Wei, an Assistant Professor of computational biology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell, said: “We have made our custom software available for free download and use by anyone interested in further research.

“Interestingly, we found that several of the identified genes involved in modern human immune, metabolic and developmental systems might have influenced human evolution after the ancestors’ migration out of Africa.”

The study published in the journal eLife, also showed that overall, modern human genes are winning out over successive generations.

Previous studies could not fully exclude genes from modern human variants but this one was able to use more precise statistical methods to focus on the variants attributable to Neanderthal genes.

While the study used a dataset of almost exclusively white individuals living in the United Kingdom, the new computational methods developed could offer a path forward in gleaning evolutionary insights from other large databases to delve deeper into archaic humans, such as Denisovans’ genetic influences on modern humans.

Produced in association with SWNS Talker

Edited by Saba Fatima and Asad Ali

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