A comprehensive analysis of DNA from modern Melanesian people suggests an assortment of mutated genes inherited from extinct Neanderthals and Denisovans provided evolutionary advantages, such as the ability to consume new foods and avoid infections, among other important benefits.
Neanderthals and Denisovans went extinct some 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, but not before these closely related hominins interbred with modern humans.
To this very day, the legacy of these interbreeding episodes live on in our DNA – at least among humans of European and Asian descent.
New research published today in Science dives into these unknowns, uncovering new evidence suggesting some of these inherited genes – at least among modern Melanesians – conferred certain evolutionary benefits, the exact nature of which still needs to be determined.
“Our study demonstrates that previously unknown large genomic structural changes that originated in our now-extinct close relatives – and were subsequently introgressed or introduced back to our genome – play important roles in human evolution,” explained PingHsun Hsieh, a geneticist from the Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle and the lead researcher of the new paper, in an email to Gizmodo.
“We also identify new genes encompassed within these large genomic variants that might be beneficial to Melanesians and help them adapt to their local island environments.”