Discovery That Modern Humans Aren’t Especially Unique, Genetically Speaking, May Lead to Improved Precision Medicine Diagnostics and Therapeutics
Of interest to clinical pathologists is the finding that sequencing the genomes of Humans and Neanderthals revealed a link between severity of COVID-19 infections and Neanderthal DNA
Genetic scientists from the University of California Santa Cruz have learned that just 7%—or less—of our DNA is unique to the human species, with the remainder of our genomes coming from other archaic species, such as Neanderthal and Denisovan.
Why should this matter to pathologists and clinical laboratories? Because a broader knowledge of how DNA evolves may help researchers and healthcare providers better understand how a modern family’s DNA can change over generations. In turn, these insights may lead to precision medicine tools for personalized diagnosis and treatment.
The scientists published their study in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), titled, “An Ancestral Recombination Graph of Human, Neanderthal, and Denisovan Genomes.”
How Genetically Unique Are Humans?
“We find that a low fraction, 1.5 to 7%, of the human genome is uniquely human, with the remainder comprising lineages shared with archaic hominins from either ILS [incomplete lineage sorting] or [genetic] admixture,” wrote the paper’s authors.
To complete their study, the researchers used DNA extracted from fossils of Neanderthals and Denisovans, as well as genetic information from 279 people from various locations around the world.
One goal was to determine what part of a modern human’s genome is truly unique. Though only a small percentage of our entire genome, those portions are important.
“We can tell those regions of the genome are highly enriched for genes that have to do with neural development and brain function,” Richard Green, PhD, Associate Professor of Biomolecular Engineering at the University of California Santa Cruz and co-author of the paper, told the Associated Press (AP).
In addition to highlighting what makes modern humans unique as a species, the study also suggests, “That we’re actually a very young species. Not that long ago, we shared the planet with other human lineages,” said Joshua Akey, PhD, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University. Akey co-authored the Science Advances research paper.
Human/Neanderthal Genetic Overlap
The genetic research being conducted at the University of California Santa Cruz is just the most recent in a flurry of studies over the past decade investigating the Neanderthal genome. Most of these studies point to the vast similarities between humans and Neanderthals, but also to how similar humans are to each other.
Practically Everyone Has Neanderthal DNA
Understanding that humans and Neanderthals are 93-98.5% similar genetically may—or may not—come as a surprise. In delving into those similarities and differences researchers are making interesting and potentially important discoveries.
For example, researchers have studied a gene that occurs in both modern humans and Neanderthal fossils that has to do with how the body responds to carcinogenic hydrocarbons, such as smoke from burning wood. Neanderthals were far more sensitive to the carcinogens, but also had more genetic variants, such as single-nucleotide polymorphisms, that could neutralize their effects.
Most modern humans carry some Neanderthal DNA. For some time, scientists thought that Africans likely did not carry Neanderthal DNA, since ancient people tended to migrate out of Africa and met Neanderthals in Europe. More recent research, however, shows that migration patterns were more complex than previously thought, and that the ancient people migrated back to Africa bringing Neanderthal DNA with them.
“Our results show this history was much more interesting and there were many waves of dispersal out of Africa, some of which led to admixture between modern humans and Neanderthals that we see in the genomes of all living individuals today,” Akey told CNN.
Neanderthal DNA and COVID-19
Researchers have found that having Neanderthal DNA may affect the health of modern people who carry it. Perception of pain, immune system function, and even hair color and sleeping patterns have been associated with having Neanderthal DNA.
Scientists have even found a potential link between severe COVID-19 infection and Neanderthal DNA, CNN reported.
In “The Major Genetic Risk Factor for Severe COVID-19 Is Inherited from Neanderthals,” published in the journal Nature, scientists with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University in Onna-son, Japan, wrote, “Here, we show that the risk is conferred by a genomic segment … that is inherited from Neanderthals and is carried by about 50% of people in South Asia and about 16% of people in Europe today.”
The researchers added, “It turns out that this gene variant was inherited by modern humans from the Neanderthals when they interbred some 60,000 years ago. Today, the people who inherited this gene variant are three times more likely to need artificial ventilation if they are infected by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.”
Of course, these links and associations are preliminary science. John Capra, PhD, Research Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and Associate Professor of Biomedical Informatics at the University of California, San Francisco says, “We can’t blame Neanderthals for COVID. That’s a damaging response, and that’s why I want to emphasize so much [that] the social and environmental factors are the real things that people should be worrying about,” he told CNN.
“That said,” he continued, “as a geneticist, I think it is important to know the evolutionary history of the genetic variants we find that do have effects on traits. The effects of Neanderthal DNA traits are detectable, but they’re modest.”
Nevertheless, genetic scientists agree that understanding the genetic roots of disorders could lead to breakthroughs that result in new types of clinical laboratory tests designed to guide precision medicine treatments.