Field Focus: High-Quality Genome Sequences Inform the Study of Human Evolution

Leafing through my favorite biology textbook from a handful of years ago, I was struck by the relative brevity of the chapter on human evolution. While other fields of biological research have enjoyed a steady gallop of productivity over the last few decades due in part to advances in computing power, imaging technology and experimental methods, the study of human evolution can be seen as having lagged behind until recently due to an almost complete dependence on fossil evidence.

Fortunately, contemporary biology textbook chapters on human evolution are being primed for a serious upgrade thanks to the recent availability of high-quality genome sequences from diverse modern human populations as well as from ancient humans and other non-human hominids, including the Neanderthals and Denisovans (but, for purposes of this story, not the Great Apes).

Modern human skull (left) and Neanderthal skull (right), shown to scale. There are not enough Denisovan bone fragments to reconstruct its skull. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, hairymuseummatt.

What are the new resources for studying human evolution?

The cost of DNA sequencing has dropped precipitously in the last decade. As a result, more complete human genome sequences become available for analysis with each passing year.

For example, the 1000 Genomes Project Exit icon includes more than 1,000 full human genome sequences of individuals from European, Asian, American and Sub-Saharan African populations. Earlier this year, the Simons Genome Diversity Project Exit icon further increased the number of available human genomes by adding 300 individuals representing 142 populations around the globe. Continue reading

On this Darwin Day, Evolutionary Geneticist Dr. Dan Janes Discusses the Scientific Contributions of Charles Darwin

This Sunday, February 12, is Darwin Day—an occasion to recognize the scientific contributions of 19th-century naturalist Charles Darwin. In this video (originally posted on Darwin Day 2016), our own evolutionary geneticist, Dan Janes, answers questions about Darwin and the role of evolution in health and biomedicine.

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Our Complicated Relationship With Viruses

Illustration of Influenza Virus H1N1. Swine Flu.
Nearly 10 percent of the human genome is derived from the genes of viruses. Credit: Stock image.

When viruses infect us, they can embed small chunks of their genetic material in our DNA. Although infrequent, the incorporation of this material into the human genome has been occurring for millions of years. As a result of this ongoing process, viral genetic material comprises nearly 10 percent of the modern human genome. Over time, the vast majority of viral invaders populating our genome have mutated to the point that they no longer lead to active infections. But they are not entirely dormant.

Sometimes, these stowaway sequences of viral genes, called “endogenous retroviruses” (ERVs), can contribute to the onset of diseases such as cancer. They can also make their hosts susceptible to infections from other viruses. However, scientists have identified numerous cases of viral hitchhikers bestowing crucial benefits to their human hosts—from protection against disease to shaping important aspects of human evolution, such as the ability to digest starch.

Protecting Against Disease

Geneticists Cedric Feschotte Exit icon, Edward Chuong Exit icon and Nels Elde Exit icon at the University of Utah have discovered that ERVs lodged in the human genome can jump start the immune system.

For a virus to successfully make copies of itself inside a host cell, it needs molecular tools similar to the ones its host normally uses to translate genes into proteins. As a result, viruses have tools meticulously shaped by evolution to commandeer the protein-producing machinery of human cells. Continue reading

Exploring the Evolution of Spider Venom to Improve Human Health

Brown recluse

Female brown recluse spider. Credit Matt Bertone, North Carolina State University.

This Halloween, you’re not likely to see many trick-or-treaters dressed as spiders. Google Trends pegs “Spider” as the 87th most searched-for Halloween costume, right between “Hippie” and “The Renaissance.” But don’t let your guard down. Spiders are everywhere.

“I grew up on a farm in Indiana and had the luxury of exploring and turning over rocks and being curious. Any feelings of being grossed out by spiders were rapidly replaced by my feelings of awe for how amazing and diverse these creatures are.”– Greta Binford”

More than 46,000 species of spiders creepy crawl across the globe, on every continent except Antarctica. Each species produces a venom composed of an average of 500 distinct toxins, putting the conservative estimate of unique venom compounds at more than 22 million. This staggering diversity of venoms, collectively referred to as the venome, has only begun to be explored. Continue reading

Another Piece to a Century-Old Evolutionary Puzzle

After mating about 55,000 pairs of fruit flies and sifting through 333,000 daughter flies, a research team found six sons that each had mutations in the same gene that helped make two fruit fly species unique from each other. Credit: Jim Woolace, Fred Hutch News Service.

Nitin Phadnis and Harmit Malik Exit icon set out to conduct an experiment that could solve a century-old evolutionary puzzle: How did two related fruit fly species arise from one? Years after they began their quest, they finally have an answer.

The existence of a gene that helps make each of these fruit fly species unique and separate from each other had been guessed at since 1940, following experiments decades earlier in which geneticists first noticed that the two types of flies, when mated, had only daughters—no sons.

Scientists had previously discovered two other genes involved in driving the fruit fly species apart, but they knew those two genes weren’t the full story. Continue reading

Evolution and Health: A Conversation with Evolutionary Geneticist Dr. Dan Janes on the Occasion of Charles Darwin’s Birthday

Today, February 12, is Darwin Day—an occasion to recognize the scientific contributions of 19th-century naturalist Charles Darwin. In this video, our own evolutionary geneticist, Dan Janes, answers questions about Darwin and the role of evolution in health and biomedicine.

For more details about evolution and you, check out our articles Evolution and Health and Everyday Evolution.

Meet Nels Elde and His Team’s Amazing, Expandable Viruses

Nels Elde, Ph.D.
Credit: Kristan Jacobsen
Nels Elde, Ph.D.
Fields: Evolutionary genetics, virology, microbiology, cell biology
Works at: University of Utah, Salt Lake City
When not in the lab, he’s: Gardening, supervising pets, procuring firewood
Hobbies: Canoeing, skiing, participating in facial hair competitions

“I really look at my job as an adventure,” says Nels Elde. “The ability to follow your nose through different fields is what motivates me.”

Elde has used that approach to weave evolutionary genetics, bacteriology, virology, genomics and cell biology into his work. While a graduate student at the University of Chicago and postdoctoral researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, he became interested in how interactions between pathogens (like viruses and bacteria) and their hosts (like humans) drive the evolution of both parties. He now works in Salt Lake City, where, as an avid outdoorsman, he draws inspiration from the wild landscape.

Outside the lab, Elde keeps diverse interests and colorful company. His best friend wrote a song about his choice of career as a cell biologist. (You can hear this song at the end of the 5-minute video Exit icon in which Elde explains his work.) Continue reading

Neanderthal DNA—Still Among Us

Map of Europe and Asia showing the presumed range of where Neanderthals lived.
For tens of thousands of years, Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia (presumed range shown in blue) and interbred with humans, passing on some DNA to present-day people. Credit: Ryulong, Wikimedia Commons.
View larger image

Many of us have some Neanderthal genes. Before Neanderthals went extinct about 30,000 years ago, they interbred with humans living in Europe and Asia. Today’s descendants of those pairings inherited about 2 percent of their genomes from the big-brained hominids.

A research group led by David Reich at Harvard Medical School recently completed an analysis to determine the extent and identity of Neanderthal DNA in modern-day human populations. The group found that many traits in present-day people—including skin characteristics and susceptibility to various diseases—can be traced to Neanderthal DNA.

It also appears that, genetically speaking, Neanderthals and humans weren’t completely compatible. Based on the uneven distribution of Neanderthal DNA in today’s genomes, the scientists concluded that many of the male offspring of Neanderthal-human unions were infertile. In the animal world, this phenomenon is known as hybrid infertility, where the offspring of a male from one subspecies and a female from another have low or no fertility.

Studying human genes passed down through Neanderthals—as well as regions of the human genome notably devoid of Neanderthal DNA—provides an increasingly complete picture of the genetic landscape that contributed to health, disease and diversity among humans today.

Learn more:
Harvard Medical School News Release Exit icon
Evolution and Health Article from Inside Life Science
Reich Lab Exit icon