Researchers Create Atlas of Human Gene Mixing ; Groundbreaking Study Maps Major Genome Shifts of Past 4,000 Years

By Wade, Nicholas | International New York Times, February 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

Researchers Create Atlas of Human Gene Mixing ; Groundbreaking Study Maps Major Genome Shifts of Past 4,000 Years


Wade, Nicholas, International New York Times


Geneticists using new statistical approaches have taken a first shot at identifying and dating the major population mixture events of the past 4,000 years.

The rise and fall of empires, the march of armies, the flow of trade routes, the practice of slavery -- all these events have led to a mixing of populations around the world. Such episodes have left a record in the human genome, but one that has so far been too complex to decipher on a global scale.

Now, geneticists applying new statistical approaches have taken a first shot at both identifying and dating the major population mixture events of the last 4,000 years, with the goal of providing a new source of information for historians.

Some of the hundred or so major mixing events they describe have plausible historical explanations, while many others remain to be accounted for. For instance, many populations of the southern Mediterranean and Middle East have segments of African origin in their genomes that were inserted at times between A.D. 650 and 1900, according to the geneticists' calculations. This could reflect the activity of the Arab slave trade, which originated in the seventh century, and the absorption of slaves into their host populations.

Another mixing event is the injection of European-type DNA into the Kalash, a people of Pakistan, at some time between 990 and 210 B.C. This could reflect the invasion of India by Alexander the Great in 326 B.C. The Kalash claim to be descended from Alexander's soldiers, as do several other groups in the region.

The genetic atlas of human mixing events was published on Thursday in the journal Science by a team led by Simon Myers of Oxford University, Garrett Hellenthal of University College London and Daniel Falush of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Having sampled genomes from around the world, they found they could detect about 95 distinguishable populations.

Though all humans have the same set of genes, their genomes are studded with mutations, which are differences in the sequence of DNA units in the genome. These mutations occur in patterns because whole sets of mutations are passed down from parent to child and hence will be common in a particular population. …

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