December 10, 2018

Modern Humans Inherited Viral Defences From Neanderthals

09 October 2018, 05:49 | Silvia Roy

UNiesert Frank Vincentz , via Wikimedia Commons

Neanderthals viral defenses

When Homo sapiens crossed paths with their Neanderthal cousins tens of thousands of years ago in Europe, they also encountered risky new pathogens-and, though interbreeding, the genes to fight those infections, a new study suggests.

Now they have found that some parts of Neanderthal DNA appear in modern humans, including Europeans and Asians.

"It made much more sense for modern humans to just borrow the already adapted genetic defenses from Neanderthals rather than waiting for their own adaptive mutations to develop, which would have taken much more time", said David Enard, an evolutionary biologist, now at the University of Arizona.

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When modern humans left Africa for Europe, they interbred at least twice in the past 100,000 years with Neanderthals, resulting in 2 to 3 percent of the DNA inside non-African humans coming from Neanderthals. That meant they were already used to the terrain and climate of other continents, which allowed them to develop defenses against viruses present in Europe and Asia.

In a "poison-antidote" model of gene swapping between the two species, the Neanderthals passed on to the humans both the viruses as well as the right tools to fight them with. They came up with 152 sequences for virus-interacting proteins that had come from Neanderthals. A team of researchers from Stanford University have proved this idea. Our method is similarly indirect: "Because we know which genes interact with which viruses, we can infer the types of viruses responsible for ancient disease outbreaks".

Some bits of Neanderthal DNA are more common in modern humans than others, and scientists wondered if this was because those genes provided specific evolutionary advantages.

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"Neanderthal genes likely gave us some protection against viruses that our ancestors encountered when they left Africa", Petrov said. Those sequences are publicly available to investigators in the field. Luckily, the Neanderthals' immune systems evolved genetic defenses against these viruses that were also passed on to humans, according to a study reported in Cell. Once they met up thousands of years later, though, the Neanderthal variety was acquired by humans and quickly spread. "Our research aims to understand why that was the case".

The study concluded that interbreeding between ancient humans and Neanderthals provided us the immunity against some ancient viral epidemics. Researchers from the University of Stanford (USA), which published the study, say that our ancestors have inherited protection from viruses, from ancestors who were Neanderthals. "This study suggests that one of the roles of those genes was to provide us with some protection against pathogens as we moved into new environments". Now, a new genetic survey has revealed gene flow between humans and Neanderthals was mediated by viral transmissions.

This technique would work especially well for RNA viruses, whose RNA-based genomes are more frail than their DNA counterparts, Enard noted.

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