Genetic Chaos

Friday, May 04, 2007

Lactase Haplotype Diversity in the Old World

Lactase persistence, the genetic trait in which intestinal lactase activity persists at childhood levels into adulthood, varies in frequency in different human populations, being most frequent in northern Europeans and certain African and Arabian nomadic tribes, who have a history of drinking fresh milk. Selection is likely to have played an important role in establishing these different frequencies since the development of agricultural pastoralism ~9,000 years ago. We have previously shown that the element responsible for the lactase persistence/nonpersistence polymorphism in humans is cis-acting to the lactase gene and that lactase persistence is associated, in Europeans, with the most common 70-kb lactase haplotype, A. We report here a study of the 11-site haplotype in 1,338 chromosomes from 11 populations that differ in lactase persistence frequency. Our data show that haplotype diversity was generated both by point mutations and recombinations. The four globally common haplotypes (A, B, C, and U) are not closely related and have different distributions; the A haplotype is at high frequencies only in northern Europeans, where lactase persistence is common; and the U haplotype is virtually absent from Indo-European populations. Much more diversity is seen in sub-Saharan Africans than in non-Africans, consistent with an "Out of Africa" model for peopling of the Old World. Analysis of recent recombinant haplotypes by allele-specific PCR, along with deduction of the root haplotype from chimpanzee sequence, allowed construction of a haplotype network that assisted in evaluation of the relative roles of drift and selection in establishing the haplotype frequencies in the different populations. We suggest that genetic drift was important in shaping the general pattern of non-African haplotype diversity, with recent directional selection in northern Europeans for the haplotype associated with lactase persistence.

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Absence of the lactase-persistence-associated allele in early Neolithic Europeans

Lactase persistence (LP), the dominant Mendelian trait conferring the ability to digest the milk sugar lactose in adults, has risen to high frequency in central and northern Europeans in the last 20,000 years. This trait is likely to have conferred a selective advantage in individuals who consume appreciable amounts of unfermented milk. Some have argued for the "culture-historical hypothesis," whereby LP alleles were rare until the advent of dairying early in the Neolithic but then rose rapidly in frequency under natural selection. Others favor the "reverse cause hypothesis," whereby dairying was adopted in populations with preadaptive high LP allele frequencies. Analysis based on the conservation of lactase gene haplotypes indicates a recent origin and high selection coefficients for LP, although it has not been possible to say whether early Neolithic European populations were lactase persistent at appreciable frequencies. We developed a stepwise strategy for obtaining reliable nuclear ancient DNA from ancient skeletons, based on (i) the selection of skeletons from archaeological sites that showed excellent biomolecular preservation, (ii) obtaining highly reproducible human mitochondrial DNA sequences, and (iii) reliable short tandem repeat (STR) genotypes from the same specimens. By applying this experimental strategy, we have obtained high-confidence LP-associated genotypes from eight Neolithic and one Mesolithic human remains, using a range of strict criteria for ancient DNA work. We did not observe the allele most commonly associated with LP in Europeans, thus providing evidence for the culture-historical hypothesis, and indicating that LP was rare in early European farmers.

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