Gift from an ancestor. Ancient DNA reveals how our immune system was formed
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The study shows which genes helped modern humans adapt to the environment and fight infections.
In the summer of 2008, scientists discovered a broken finger bone in a cave in the Siberian Altai Mountains. Initially it was assumed that the remains belong to a Neanderthal, but in 2010 everything changed – DNA analysis showed that the researchers found fragments of a completely different prehistoric species – Denisovan, writes Inverse.
In the course of further research, scientists learned a lot about our mysterious cousins, who originated from the Denisova cave, in which the bone fragment was found. In the course of research, scientists have found that Neanderthal DNA is responsible for a number of physical and personality traits of modern humans and even some diseases, such as covid or diabetes. However, scientists for a long time could not understand what impact Denisovan DNA had on modern people.
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In a new study, a team of scientists from the University of Melbourne in Australia seems to be getting closer to the answer. The researchers found that in the native inhabitants of the island of New Guinea, Denisovan DNA regulates immune genes and cells and has a greater influence than Neanderthal DNA. Scientists suggest that it was this function that helped the Papuans adapt to the local environment and resist infectious diseases.
According to a computational biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, who was not involved in the study, Janet Kelso, the study is promising. The fact is that today there are quite a few studies that would specifically study the influence of Denisovan DNA on modern people in Oceania and the islands of Southeast Asia – this is a good start.
During the study, scientists took a large dataset in which the genomes of more than three hundred people from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea were sequenced. All samples contained both Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA. These data allowed us to find out which genes were associated with which archaic hominin, but did not determine the exact functional role of DNA for the Denisovan.
According to study leader Irene Gallego Romero. She and her colleagues examined the genomes of more than fifty popuas from this set, and then compared Denisovan DNA with another database. As a result, the scientists found that non-coding Denisovan genetic sequences were more active in immune cells compared to Neanderthal DNA.
Romero notes that scientists will need more research to understand exactly how immune genes turn Denisovan DNA on and off. however, scientists now know which direction they need to go.
Researchers believe that the results of the study will shed light on how some of our other long-extinct ancestors influenced our evolution and health.