Molecular anthropology

Molecular anthropology is a field of anthropology in which molecular analysis is used to determine evolutionary links between ancient and modern human populations, as well as between contemporary species. Generally, comparisons are made between sequences, either DNA or protein sequences; however, early studies used comparative serology.

By examining DNA sequences in different populations, scientists can determine the closeness of relationships between populations (or within populations). Certain similarities in genetic makeup let molecular anthropologists determine whether or not different groups of people belong to the same haplogroup, and thus if they share a common geographical origin. This is significant because it allows anthropologists to trace patterns of migration and settlement, which gives helpful insight as to how contemporary populations have formed and progressed over time.[1]

Molecular anthropology has been extremely useful in establishing the evolutionary tree of humans and other primates, including closely related species like chimps and gorillas. While there are clearly many morphological similarities between humans and chimpanzees, for example, certain studies also have concluded that there is roughly a 98 percent commonality between the DNA of both species.[citation needed] However, more recent studies have modified the commonality of 98 percent to a commonality of 94 percent, showing that the genetic gap between humans and chimps is larger than originally thought.[2] Such information is useful in searching for common ancestors and coming to a better understanding of how humans evolved.

Haploid loci in molecular anthropology

Image of mitochondrion. There are many mitochondria within a cell, and DNA in them replicates independently of the chromosomes in the nucleus.

There are two continuous linkage groups in humans that are carried by a single sex. The first is the Y chromosome, which is passed from father to son. Anatomical females carry a Y chromosome only rarely, as a result of genetic defect. The other linkage group is the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). MtDNA is almost always only passed to the next generation by females, but under highly exceptional circumstances mtDNA can be passed through males.[clarification needed] The non-recombinant portion of the Y chromosome and the mtDNA, under normal circumstances, do not undergo productive recombination. Part of the Y chromosome can undergo recombination with the X chromosome and within ape history the boundary has changed. Such recombinant changes in the non-recombinant region of Y are extremely rare.[citation needed]

Mitochondrial DNA

Illustration of the human mitochondrial DNA with the control region (CR, in grey) containing hypervariable sequences I and II.

Mitochondrial DNA became an area of research in phylogenetics in the late 1970s. Unlike genomic DNA, it offered advantages in that it did not undergo recombination. The process of recombination, if frequent enough, corrupts the ability to create parsimonious trees because of stretches of amino acid subsititions (SNPs).[clarification needed] When looking between distantly related species, recombination is less of a problem since recombination between branches from common ancestors is prevented after true speciation occurs. When examining closely related species, or branching within species, recombination creates a large number of 'irrelevant SNPs' for cladistic analysis. MtDNA, through the process of organelle division, became clonal over time; very little, or often none, of that paternal mtDNA is passed. While recombination may occur in mtDNA, there is little risk that it will be passed to the next generation. As a result, mtDNA become clonal copies of each other, except when a new mutation arises. As a result, mtDNA does not have pitfalls of autosomal loci when studied in interbreeding groups. Another advantage of mtDNA is that the hyper-variable regions evolve very quickly; this shows that certain regions of mitochondrial DNA approach neutrality. This allowed the use of mitochondrial DNA to determine that the relative age of the human population was small, having gone through a recent constriction at about 150,000 years ago (see #Causes of errors).

Mitochondrial DNA has also been used to verify the proximity of chimpanzees to humans relative to gorillas, and to verify the relationship of these three species relative to the orangutan.

A population bottleneck, as illustrated was detected by intrahuman mtDNA phylogenetic studies; the length of the bottleneck itself is indeterminate per mtDNA.

More recently,[when?] the mtDNA genome has been used to estimate branching patterns in peoples around the world, such as when the new world was settled and how. The problem with these studies have been that they rely heavily on mutations in the coding region. Researchers have increasingly discovered that as humans moved from Africa's south-eastern regions, that more mutations accumulated in the coding region than expected, and in passage to the new world some groups are believed[citation needed] to have passed from the Asian tropics to Siberia to an ancient land region called Beringia and quickly migrated to South America. Many of the mtDNA have far more mutations and at rarely mutated coding sites relative to expectations of neutral mutations.

Mitochondrial DNA offers another advantage over autosomal DNA. There are generally 2 to 4 copies of each chromosome in each cell (1 to 2 from each parent chromosome). For mtDNA there can be dozens to hundreds in each cell. This increases the amount of each mtDNA loci by at least a magnitude. For ancient DNA, in which the DNA is highly degraded, the number of copies of DNA is helpful in extending and bridging short fragments together, and decreases the amount of bone extracted from highly valuable fossil/ancient remains. Unlike Y chromosome, both male and female remains carry mtDNA in roughly equal quantities.

Schematic of typical animal cell, showing subcellular components. Organelles: (1) nucleolus (2) nucleus (9) mitochondria

Y chromosome

Illustration of human Y chromosome

The Y chromosome is found in the nucleus of normal cells (nuclear DNA). Unlike mtDNA, it has mutations in the non-recombinant portion (NRY) of the chromosome spaced widely apart, so far apart that finding the mutations on new Y chromosomes is labor-intensive compared with mtDNA. Many studies rely on tandem repeats; however, tandem repeats can expand and retract rapidly and in some predictable patterns. The Y chromosome only tracks male lines, and is not found in females, whereas mtDNA can be traced in males even though they fail to pass on mtDNA. In addition, it has been estimated that effective male populations in the prehistoric period were typically two females per male, and recent studies show that cultural hegemony plays a large role in the passage of Y. This has created discordance between males and females for the Time to the Most Recent Common Ancestor (TMRCA). The estimates for Y TMRCA range from 1/4 to less than 1/2 that of mtDNA TMRCA. It is unclear whether this is due to high male-to-female ratios in the past coupled with repeat migrations from Africa, as a result of mutational rate change, or as some have even proposed that females of the LCA between chimps and humans continued to pass DNA millions after males ceased to pass DNA. At present the best evidence suggests that in migration the male to female ratio in humans may have declined, causing a trimming of Y diversity on multiple occasions within and outside of Africa.

Diagram of human X chromosome showing genetic map

For short-range molecular phylogenetics and molecular clocking, the Y chromosome is highly effective and creates a second perspective. One argument that arose was that the Maori by mtDNA appear to have migrated from Eastern China or Taiwan, by Y chromosome from the Papua New Guinea region. When HLA haplotypes were used to evaluate the two hypotheses, it was uncovered that both were right, that the Maori were an admixed population. Such admixtures appear to be common in the human population and thus the use of a single haploid loci can give a biased perspective.