Subscribe to the BioNews newsletter for free

Advanced Search

Search for

Like the Progress Educational Trust on Facebook



Ancestral humans had more DNA

17 August 2015

By Isobel Steer

Appeared in BioNews 815

Compared to ancestral humans, most modern people have lost 40.7 million base-pairs of DNA

According to a study that 'deep sequenced' the genomes of 236 individuals from 125 human populations, these DNA deletions have been driven by natural selection during the migration of our species out of Africa.

The study, which was published in Science, aimed to create an atlas of modern human genetic diversity.

'The take-home message is that we continue to find a lot more genetic variation between humans than we appreciated previously,' lead author Professor Evan Eichler of the University of Washington told The Scientist.

In addition to sequencing the genomes of modern people, the scientists also delved into the DNA of archaic populations such as Neanderthals and Denisovans to reconstruct our ancestral genome of 200,000 years ago. In particular they looked at copy number variations (CNVs), which are classified as either duplications (more copy numbers) or deletions (fewer copy numbers). These have been more difficult to sequence than traditional single nucleotide variations (SNVs), and so have not been greatly studied before.

The researchers found CNVs were the source of seven times more genetic variation than SNVs, and by using CNV data the researchers were able to identify patterns of ancestry and migration. '[During] the last 80,000 years, the genomes of our ancestors that left Africa have gone through much more remodelling by CNVs compared to SNVs,' Professor Eichler told The Scientist. Duplications in gene copy number were four times more likely to affect gene function than deletions.

Since the origins of our species in Africa 200,000 years ago, humans have lost around 15.8 million base-pairs. The remaining 24.9 million base-pairs were lost in chunks as humans migrated around the world, allowing the scientists to create a map of human migration using this data. The entire human genome contains around three billion base-pairs, so these figures represent a very small proportion of the total, and losing unnecessary DNA is a key component of natural selection.

The scientists now hope to use this information to see how these CNVs might affect disease risk. For example, it is known that certain African populations carry gene duplications that may protect against sleeping sickness caused by trypanosome parasites.

Gizmodo Australia | 10 August 2015
Eurekalert (press release) | 06 August 2015
The Scientist | 06 August 2015
Science | 06 August 2015
Mail Online | 07 August 2015


14 November 2016 - by Matthew Thomas 
The process of natural selection has removed the majority of Neanderthal DNA from the modern human genome, leaving behind a handful of beneficial genes, two recent studies have suggested...
09 May 2016 - by Dr Özge Özkaya 
A study of ancient DNA obtained from prehistoric human remains has revealed details about modern humans before farming began, going back to their arrival in Europe around 45,000 years ago...
22 February 2016 - by Isobel Steer 
Neanderthal-derived DNA influences our risk of certain diseases, including addiction, blood clots, skin conditions and depression, a recent study has found....
05 October 2015 - by Dr Rosie Gilchrist 
An international team of scientists from the 1000 Genomes Project Consortium has created the world's largest catalogue of genomic differences among humans...

06 July 2015 - by Dr Katie Howe 
A large-scale review of genetic data from a number of different studies has suggested that diverse parental genes can lead to offspring who are taller and have increased cognitive ability...
15 June 2015 - by Paul Waldron 
The modern European and Central Asian gene pools are the result of mass migrations during the Bronze Age, according to a new analysis of ancient human remains...
23 March 2015 - by Dr Barbara Kramarz 
The human genome contains genes from plants, fungi and various microorganisms that cohabited with our ancestors, research shows...
02 March 2015 - by Meghna Kataria 
One of the genes behind the dramatic evolutionary enlargement of the human brain has been identified. By greatly increasing the number of cells in important brain regions, the gene in question might have helped humans develop cognitive abilities unrivalled in the animal kingdom...
04 August 2014 - by Chris Baldacci 
Researchers at the University of Oxford have estimated that only 8.2 percent of human DNA has been left unchanged as the species has evolved and is therefore likely to be functional...

Be the first to have your say.

You need to or  to add comments.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

- click here to enquire about using this story.

Published by the Progress Educational Trust


Public Conference
8 December 2017

Speakers include

Professor Azim Surani

Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge

Sally Cheshire

Professor Guido Pennings

Katherine Littler

Professor Allan Pacey

Dr Sue Avery

Professor Richard Anderson

Dr Elizabeth Garner

Dr Andy Greenfield

Dr Anna Smajdor

Dr Henry Malter

Vivienne Parry

Dr Helen O'Neill

Dr César Palacios-González

Philippa Taylor

Fiona Fox

Sarah Norcross

Sandy Starr


Good Fundraising Code

Become a Friend of PET HERE and give the Progress Educational Trust a regular donation