The class human or H. sapiens refers to a set of individuals. On the grand scale it’s really not all that clear and distinct. When do “archaic” humans become “modern” humans? Taking into account human variation, what is a “human universal”? A set of organisms are given a name which denotes the reality that they may share common ancestry, and interact behaviorally, and are potential mates. But many of these phenomenon are fuzzy on the margins. Many of the same issues which emerge in the “species concept” debates are rather general up and down the scales of natural complexity. A similar problem crops up when we conflate the history of genes with the history of populations. Such a conflation has value and utility to a first approximation. The story of mitochondrial Eve was actually the history of one particular locus, the mitochondrial genome. But it did tell us quite a bit about the history of the human species, even if in hindsight it looks as if some scientists overinterpreted those findings. One of the major issues I’ve noticed over the past year, with the heightened likelihood of archaic admixture in the modern human genome, is that people regularly get confused by the difference between total genome ancestry, and the evolutionary history of one particular gene.
Recently something popped up into my Google news feed in regards to “Neanderthal-human mating.” If you are a regular reader you know that I’m wild for this particular combination of the “wild thing.” But a quick perusal of the press release told me that this was a paper I had already reviewed when it was published online in January. I even used the results in the paper to confirm Neanderthal admixture in my own family (we’ve all been genotyped). One of my siblings is in fact a hemizygote for the Neanderthal alleles on the locus in question! I guess it shows the power of press releases upon the media. I would offer up the explanation that this just shows that the more respectable press doesn’t want to touch papers which aren’t in print, but that’s not a good explanation when they are willing to hype up stuff which is presented at conferences at even an earlier stage.
A second aspect I noted is that except for Ron Bailey at Reason all the articles which use a color headshot use a brunette reconstruction, like the one here which is from the Smithsonian. But the most recent research (dating to 2007) seems to suggest that the Neanderthals may have been highly depigmented. This shouldn’t be too surprising when one considers that they were resident in northern climes for hundreds of thousands of years.
But there are some new tidbits, from researchers in the field of study:
Update: John Hawks’ lab is working in the same area, and he disagrees with the specific results presented here. Always reminds you to be careful about sexy results presented at conference! (someone should do a study!)
So claimed Peter Parham at a Royal Society meeting last week, Human evolution, migration and history revealed by genetics, immunity and infection. You can actually listen to the talk by pulling down the mp3 file. To get the part about human evolution and introgression, jump to 24 minutes in.
Here is the general sketch: It looks like ~50 percent of the HLA Class I alleles in Europeans derive from Neandertals, ~70-80 percent of HLA Class I alleles in East Asians derive from Denisovans, and that and ~90-95 percent of HLA Class I alleles in Papuans derive from Denisovans. If you recall, ~2.5% of the total genome content of non-Africans seems to be Neandertal, while ~5% of the total genome content of Papuans seems to be Denisovan. The total genome content proportions are rough estimates, there may be some wiggle room in there. But you can see that the HLA allele admixture estimates from these ancient Eurasian lineages is greater by an order of magnitude. Why?
After 2010’s world-shaking revolutions in our understanding of modern human origins, the admixture of Eurasian hominins with neo-Africans, I assumed there was going to be a revisionist look at results which seemed to point to mixing between different human lineages over the past decade. Dienekes links to a case in point, a new paper in Molecular Biology and Evolution, An X-linked haplotype of Neandertal origin is present among all non-African populations. The authors revisit a genetic locus where there have been earlier suggestions of hominin admixture dating back 15 years. In particular, they focus on an intronic segment spanning exon 44 of the dystrophin gene, termed dys44. Of the haplotypes in this they suggested one, B006, introgressed from a different genetic background than that of neo-Africans. The map of B006 shows the distribution of the putative “archaic” haplotype from a previous paper cited in the current one from 2003. As you can see there’s a pattern of non-African preponderance of this haplotype. So what’s dystrophin‘s deal? From Wikipedia:
Dystrophin is a rod-shaped cytoplasmic protein, and a vital part of a protein complex that connects the cytoskeleton of a muscle fiber to the surrounding extracellular matrix through the cell membrane. This complex is variously known as the costamere or the dystrophin-associated protein complex. Many muscle proteins, such as α-dystrobrevin, syncoilin, synemin, sarcoglycan, dystroglycan, and sarcospan, colocalize with dystrophin at the costamere.
Dystrophin is the longest gene known on DNA level, covering 2.4 megabases (0.08% of the human genome) at locus Xp21. However, it does not encode the longest protein known in humans. The primary transcript measures about 2,400 kilobases and takes 16 hours to transcribe; the mature mRNA measures 14.0 kilobases….
Dystrophin deficiency has been definitively established as one of the root causes of the general class of myopathies collectively referred to as muscular dystrophy. The large cytosolic protein was first identified in 1987 by Louis M. Kunkel…after the 1986 discovery of the mutated gene that causes Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) ….
OK, so we’ve established that this is not an obscure gene. Here’s the abstract of the new paper:
One of the major issues which has loomed at the heart of biology since The Origin of Species is why species exist, as well as how species come about. Why isn’t there a perfect replicator which performs all the conversion of energy and matter into biomass on this planet? If there is a God the tree of life almost seems to be a testament to his riotous aesthetic sense, with numerous branches which lead to convergences, and a inordinate fascination with variants on the basic morph of beetles. From the outside the outcomes of evolutionary biology look a patent mess, a sprawling expanse of experiments and misfires.
A similar issue has vexed biologists in relation to sex. Why is it that the vast majority of complex organisms take upon themselves the costs of sex? The existence of a non-offspring bearing form within a species reduces the potential natural increase by a factor of two before the game has even begun. Not only that, but the existence of two sexes who must seek each other out expends crucial energy in a Malthusian world (selfing hermaphrodites obviously don’t have this problem, but for highly complex organisms they aren’t so common). Why bother? (I mean in an ultimate, not proximate, sense)
It seems likely that part of the answer to both these questions on the grande scale is that the perfect is the enemy of long term survival. Sexual reproduction confers upon a lineage a genetic variability which may reduce fitness by shifting populations away from the adaptive peak in the short term, but the fitness landscape itself is a constant bubbling flux, and perfectly engineered asexual lineages may all too often fall off the cliff of what was once their mountain top. The only inevitability seems to be that the times change. Similarly, the natural history of life on earth tells us that all greatness comes to an end, and extinction is the lot of life. The universe is an unpredictable place and the mighty invariably fall, as the branches of life’s tree are always pruned by the gardeners red in tooth and claw.
But it is one thing to describe reality in broad verbal brushes. How about a more rigorous empirical and theoretical understanding of how organisms and the genetic material through which they gain immortality play out in the universe? A new paper which uses plant models explores the costs and benefits of admixture between lineages, and how those two dynamics operate in a heterogeneous and homogeneous world. Population admixture, biological invasions and the balance between local adaptation and inbreeding depression: