Genetic Chaos

Friday, April 09, 2004

Evidence for Variable Selective Pressures at MC1R

It is widely assumed that genes that influence variation in skin and hair pigmentation are under selection. To date, the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) is the only gene identified that explains substantial phenotypic variance in human pigmentation. Here we investigate MC1R polymorphism in several populations, for evidence of selection. We conclude that MC1R is under strong functional constraint in Africa, where any diversion from eumelanin production (black pigmentation) appears to be evolutionarily deleterious. Although many of the MC1R amino acid variants observed in non-African populations do affect MC1R function and contribute to high levels of MC1R diversity in Europeans, we found no evidence, in either the magnitude or the patterns of diversity, for its enhancement by selection; rather, our analyses show that levels of MC1R polymorphism simply reflect neutral expectations under relaxation of strong functional constraint outside Africa.

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What Controls Variation in Human Skin Color?

Diversity of human appearance and form has intrigued biologists for centuries, but nearly 100 years after the term “genetics’’ was coined by William Bateson in 1906, the genes that underlie this diversity are an unsolved mystery. One of the most obvious phenotypes that distinguish members of our species, differences in skin pigmentation, is also one of the most enigmatic. There is a tremendous range of human skin color in which variation can be correlated with climates, continents, and/or cultures, yet we know very little about the underlying genetic architecture. Is the number of common skin color genes closer to five, 50, or 500? Do gain- and loss-of-function alleles for a small set of genes give rise to phenotypes at opposite ends of the pigmentary spectrum? Has the effect of natural selection on similar pigmentation phenotypes proceeded independently via similar pathways? And, finally, should we care about the genetics of human pigmentation if it is only skin-deep?

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Skin pigmentation, biogeographical ancestry and admixture mapping

Ancestry informative markers (AIMs) are genetic loci showing alleles with large frequency differences between populations. AIMs can be used to estimate biogeographical ancestry at the level of the population, subgroup (e.g. cases and controls) and individual. Ancestry estimates at both the subgroup and individual level can be directly instructive regarding the genetics of the phenotypes that differ qualitatively or in frequency between populations. These estimates can provide a compelling foundation for the use of admixture mapping (AM) methods to identify the genes underlying these traits. We present details of a panel of 34 AIMs and demonstrate how such studies can proceed, by using skin pigmentation as a model phenotype. We have genotyped these markers in two population samples with primarily African ancestry, viz. African Americans from Washington D.C. and an African Caribbean sample from Britain, and in a sample of European Americans from Pennsylvania. In the two African population samples, we observed significant correlations between estimates of individual ancestry and skin pigmentation as measured by reflectometry (R2=0.21, P<0.0001 for the African-American sample and R2=0.16, P<0.0001 for the British African-Caribbean sample). These correlations confirm the validity of the ancestry estimates and also indicate the high level of population structure related to admixture, a level that characterizes these populations and that is detectable by using other tests to identify genetic structure. We have also applied two methods of admixture mapping to test for the effects of three candidate genes (TYR, OCA2, MC1R) on pigmentation. We show that TYR and OCA2 have measurable effects on skin pigmentation differences between the west African and west European parental populations. This work indicates that it is possible to estimate the individual ancestry of a person based on DNA analysis with a reasonable number of well-defined genetic markers. The implications and applications of ancestry estimates in biomedical research are discussed.

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Human Population Genetic Structure and Inference of Group Membership

A major goal of biomedical research is to develop the capability to provide highly personalized health care. To do so, it is necessary to understand the distribution of interindividual genetic variation at loci underlying physical characteristics, disease susceptibility, and response to treatment. Variation at these loci commonly exhibits geographic structuring and may contribute to phenotypic differences between groups. Thus, in some situations, it may be important to consider these groups separately. Membership in these groups is commonly inferred by use of a proxy such as place-of-origin or ethnic affiliation. These inferences are frequently weakened, however, by use of surrogates, such as skin color, for these proxies, the distribution of which bears little resemblance to the distribution of neutral genetic variation. Consequently, it has become increasingly controversial whether proxies are sufficient and accurate representations of groups inferred from neutral genetic variation. This raises three questions: how many data are required to identify population structure at a meaningful level of resolution, to what level can population structure be resolved, and do some proxies represent population structure accurately? We assayed 100 Alu insertion polymorphisms in a heterogeneous collection of ~565 individuals, ~200 of whom were also typed for 60 microsatellites. Stripped of identifying information, correct assignment to the continent of origin (Africa, Asia, or Europe) with a mean accuracy of at least 90% required a minimum of 60 Alu markers or microsatellites and reached 99%–100% when at least 100 loci were used. Less accurate assignment (87%) to the appropriate genetic cluster was possible for a historically admixed sample from southern India. These results set a minimum for the number of markers that must be tested to make strong inferences about detecting population structure among Old World populations under ideal experimental conditions. We note that, whereas some proxies correspond crudely, if at all, to population structure, the heuristic value of others is much higher. This suggests that a more flexible framework is needed for making inferences about population structure and the utility of proxies.

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