Nav: Home

Neanderthal DNA contributes to human gene expression

February 23, 2017

The last Neanderthal died 40,000 years ago, but much of their genome lives on, in bits and pieces, through modern humans. The impact of Neanderthals' genetic contribution has been uncertain: Do these snippets affect our genome's function, or are they just silent passengers along for the ride? In Cell on February 23, researchers report evidence that Neanderthal DNA sequences still influence how genes are turned on or off in modern humans. Neanderthal genes' effects on gene expression likely contribute to traits such as height and susceptibility to schizophrenia or lupus, the researchers found.

"Even 50,000 years after the last human-Neanderthal mating, we can still see measurable impacts on gene expression," says geneticist and study co-author Joshua Akey of the University of Washington School of Medicine. "And those variations in gene expression contribute to human phenotypic variation and disease susceptibility."

Previous studies have found correlations between Neanderthal genes and traits such as fat metabolism, depression, and lupus risk. However, figuring out the mechanism behind the correlations has proved difficult. DNA can be extracted from fossils and sequenced, but RNA cannot. Without this source of information, scientists can't be sure exactly if Neanderthal genes functioned differently than their modern human counterparts. They can, however, look to gene expression in modern humans who possess Neanderthal ancestry.

In this study, researchers analyzed RNA sequences in a dataset called the Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) Project, looking for people who carried both Neanderthal and modern human versions of any given gene--one version from each parent. For each such gene, the investigators then compared expression of the two alleles head-to-head in 52 different tissues.

"We find that for about 25% of all those sites that we tested, we can detect a difference in expression between the Neanderthal allele and the modern human allele," says the study's first author, UW postdoctoral researcher Rajiv McCoy.

Expression of Neanderthal alleles tended to be especially low in the brain and the testes, suggesting that those tissues may have experienced more rapid evolution since we diverged from Neanderthals approximately 700,000 years ago. "We can infer that maybe the greatest differences in gene regulation exist in the brain and testes between modern humans and Neanderthals," says Akey.

One example uncovered by this study is a Neanderthal allele of a gene called ADAMTSL3 that decreases risk of schizophrenia, while also influencing height. "Previous work by others had already suggested that this allele affects alternative splicing. Our results support this molecular model, while also revealing that the causal mutation was inherited from Neanderthals," says McCoy. Alternative splicing refers to a process in which mRNAs are modified before they leave the cell's nucleus. When the Neanderthal mutation is present, the cell's machinery removes a segment of the mRNA that is expressed in the modern human version. The cell ends up making a modified protein because of a single mutation from a Neanderthal ancestor.

The connection between that modified protein, height, and schizophrenia still requires more investigation, but it's an example of how small differences between modern humans and Neanderthals can contribute to variation in people.

"Hybridization between modern humans and Neanderthals increased genomic complexity," explains Akey. "Hybridization wasn't just something that happened 50,000 years ago that we don't have to worry about anymore. Those little bits and pieces, our Neanderthal relics, are influencing gene expression in pervasive and important ways."

Next steps may include investigating whether Denisovans--another species of hominins that crossbred with modern humans--are contributing to gene expression, as well as applying the side-by-side method of expression analysis more broadly. For this study, McCoy and his colleagues had to develop a new statistical approach to sift through the immense amount of RNA data, but the same technique could be used to compare gene expression differences between modern human alleles.
-end-
This work is partially supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Cell, McCoy et al.: "Impacts of Neanderthal-introgressed sequences on the landscape of human gene expression" http://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(17)30128-9

Cell (@CellCellPress), the flagship journal of Cell Press, is a bimonthly journal that publishes findings of unusual significance in any area of experimental biology, including but not limited to cell biology, molecular biology, neuroscience, immunology, virology and microbiology, cancer, human genetics, systems biology, signaling, and disease mechanisms and therapeutics. Visit: http://www.cell.com/cell. To receive Cell Press media alerts, contact press@cell.com.

Cell Press

Related Schizophrenia Articles:

Dietary supplement may help with schizophrenia
A dietary supplement, sarcosine, may help with schizophrenia as part of a holistic approach complementing antipsychotic medication, according to a UCL researcher.
Schizophrenia: Adolescence is the game-changer
Schizophrenia may be related to the deletion syndrome. However, not everyone who has the syndrome necessarily develops psychotic symptoms.
Study suggests overdiagnosis of schizophrenia
In a small study of patients referred to the Johns Hopkins Early Psychosis Intervention Clinic (EPIC), Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers report that about half the people referred to the clinic with a schizophrenia diagnosis didn't actually have schizophrenia.
The ways of wisdom in schizophrenia
Researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine report that persons with schizophrenia scored lower on a wisdom assessment than non-psychiatric comparison participants, but that there was considerable variability in levels of wisdom, and those with higher scores displayed fewer psychotic symptoms.
Recognizing the uniqueness of different individuals with schizophrenia
Individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia differ greatly from one another. Researchers from Radboud university medical center, along with colleagues from England and Norway, have demonstrated that very few identical brain differences are shared amongst different patients.
Resynchronizing neurons to erase schizophrenia
Today, a decisive step in understanding schizophrenia has been taken.
Genetics researchers close in on schizophrenia
Researchers at the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University have discovered 50 new gene regions that increase the risk of developing schizophrenia.
Looking for the origins of schizophrenia
Schizophrenia may be related to neurodevelopment changes, including brain's inability to create the appropriate vascular system, according to new study resulted from a partnership between the D'Or Institute for Research and Education, the University of Chile and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).
Researchers uncover novel mechanism behind schizophrenia
An international team of researchers led by a Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine scientist has uncovered a novel mechanism in which a protein--neuregulin 3--controls how key neurotransmitters are released in the brain during schizophrenia.
A new genetic marker for schizophrenia
Japanese scientists find a rare genetic variant that shows strong association with schizophrenia.
More Schizophrenia News and Schizophrenia Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Risk
Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#541 Wayfinding
These days when we want to know where we are or how to get where we want to go, most of us will pull out a smart phone with a built-in GPS and map app. Some of us old timers might still use an old school paper map from time to time. But we didn't always used to lean so heavily on maps and technology, and in some remote places of the world some people still navigate and wayfind their way without the aid of these tools... and in some cases do better without them. This week, host Rachelle Saunders...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.