Genetic Chaos

Monday, November 29, 2004

Genetic Differentiation in South Amerindians Is Related to Environmental and Cultural Diversity: Evidence from the Y Chromosome

The geographic structure of Y-chromosome variability has been analyzed in native populations of South America, through use of the high-frequency Native American haplogroup defined by the DYS199-T allele and six Y-chromosome–linked microsatellites (DYS19, DYS389A, DYS389B, DYS390, DYS391, and DYS393), analyzed in 236 individuals. The following pattern of within- and among-population variability emerges from the analysis of microsatellite data: (1) the Andean populations exhibit significantly higher levels of within-population variability than do the eastern populations of South America; (2) the spatial-autocorrelation analysis suggests a significant geographic structure of Y-chromosome genetic variability in South America, although a typical evolutionary pattern could not be categorically identified; and (3) genetic-distance analyses and the analysis of molecular variance suggest greater homogeneity between Andean populations than between non-Andean ones. On the basis of these results, we propose a model for the evolution of the male lineages of South Amerindians that involves differential patterns of genetic drift and gene flow. In the western part of the continent, which is associated with the Andean area, populations have relatively large effective sizes and gene-flow levels among them, which has created a trend toward homogenization of the gene pool. On the other hand, eastern populations—settled in the Amazonian region, the central Brazilian plateau, and the Chaco region—have exhibited higher rates of genetic drift and lower levels of gene flow, with a resulting trend toward genetic differentiation. This model is consistent with the linguistic and cultural diversity of South Amerindians, the environmental heterogeneity of the continent, and the available paleoecological data.

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African-derived South American Populations: A History of Symmetrical and Asymmetrical Matings According to Sex Revealed by Bi- and Uni-parental Genetic Markers

Estimates of African, European, and Amerindian contributions to the gene pool of 11 predominantly African-derived South American populations were obtained using five autosomal and one Y chromosome hypervariable loci, as well as mitochondrial DNA (sequences of the first hypervariable segment of the control region, plus two restriction sites and the presence or absence of the CoII/tRNALys intergenic 9-bp deletion). The three latter characteristics are reported here for the first time for 42 individuals living in three Brazilian populations. Thirty-eight sequences were identified in these persons; 17 (45%) could be classified as being of African, 4 (11%) of Amerindian, and 2 (5%) of European origin. Evidence for asymmetrical matings in relation to sex and ethnic group was obtained for nine of the 11 populations. The most consistent finding was the introduction of European genes through males, but the results differ in the several communities, indicating the importance of local factors in such interactions.

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Molecular anthropology has brought new possibilities into the study of ancient human populations. Amplification of chromosomal short tandem repeat (STR) loci and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) has been successfully employed in analyses of ancient bone material. Although several studies have reported on continental Amerindian populations, none have addressed the ancient populations inhabiting the Caribbean islands. We used STR and mtDNA analyses to study the skeletal remains of a Cuban Ciboney female adult holding an infant. Results showed that for the STR analyzed the skeletal remains shared common alleles, suggesting a relationship. Mitochondrial DNA analysis showed sequence identity, thus corroborating a possible mother-child relationship. The mtDNA sequence grouped these remains into haplogroup A, commonly found in Amerindian populations. Based on these results, we speculated on a South American origin of pre-Columbian Antilles populations and possible infanticide practices in these populations. This constitutes the first report on DNA analysis of ancient pre-Columbian Cuban populations.

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Genetic approaches to understanding human adaptation to altitude in the Andes

Despite the initial discomfort often experienced by visitors to high-altitude, humans have occupied the Andean altiplano for more than 10 000 years, and millions of people, indigenous and otherwise, currently live on these plains, high in the mountains of South America, at altitudes exceeding 3000 m. While, to some extent, acclimatisation can accommodate the one-third decrease in oxygen availability, having been born and raised at altitude appears to confer a substantial advantage in high altitude performance compared with having been born and raised at sea level. A number of characteristics have been postulated to contribute to a high-altitude Andean phenotype; however, the relative contributions of developmental adaptation (within the individual) and genetic adaptation (within the population of which the individual is part) to the acquisition of this phenotype have yet to be resolved. A complex trait is influenced by multiple genetic and environmental factors and, in humans, it is inherently very difficult to determine what proportion of the trait is dictated by an individual’s genetic heritage and what proportion develops in response to the environment in which the person is born and raised. Looking for changes in putative adaptations in vertically migrant populations, determining the heritability of putative adaptive traits and genetic association analyses have all been used to evaluate the relative contributions of nurture and nature to the Andean phenotype. As the evidence for a genetic contribution to high-altitude adaptation in humans has been the subject of several recent reviews, this article instead focuses on the methodology that has been employed to isolate the effects of ‘nature’ from those of ‘nurture’ on the acquisition of the high-altitude phenotype in Andean natives (Quechua and Aymara). The principles and assumptions underlying the various approaches, as well as some of the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each, are briefly discussed.

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Mitochondrial DNA Diversity in South America and the Genetic History of Andean Highlanders

We analyzed mtDNA sequence variation in 590 individuals from 18 south Amerindian populations. The spatial pattern of mtDNA diversity in these populations fits well the model proposed on the basis of Y-chromosome data. We found evidence of a differential action of genetic drift and gene flow in western and eastern populations, which has led to genetic divergence in the latter but not in the former. Although it is not possible to identify a pattern of genetic variation common to all South America, when western and eastern populations are analyzed separately, the mtDNA diversity in both regions fits the isolation-by-distance model, suggesting independent evolutionary dynamics. Maximum-likelihood estimates of divergence times between central and south Amerindian populations fall between 13,000 and 19,000 years, which is consistent with a Pleistocenic peopling of South America. Moreover, comparison of among-population variability of mtDNA and Y-chromosome DNA seems to indicate that South America is the only continent where the levels of differentiation are similar for maternal and paternal lineages.

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