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Concept: Ancestor


The search for ever deeper relationships among the World’s languages is bedeviled by the fact that most words evolve too rapidly to preserve evidence of their ancestry beyond 5,000 to 9,000 y. On the other hand, quantitative modeling indicates that some “ultraconserved” words exist that might be used to find evidence for deep linguistic relationships beyond that time barrier. Here we use a statistical model, which takes into account the frequency with which words are used in common everyday speech, to predict the existence of a set of such highly conserved words among seven language families of Eurasia postulated to form a linguistic superfamily that evolved from a common ancestor around 15,000 y ago. We derive a dated phylogenetic tree of this proposed superfamily with a time-depth of ∼14,450 y, implying that some frequently used words have been retained in related forms since the end of the last ice age. Words used more than once per 1,000 in everyday speech were 7- to 10-times more likely to show deep ancestry on this tree. Our results suggest a remarkable fidelity in the transmission of some words and give theoretical justification to the search for features of language that might be preserved across wide spans of time and geography.

Concepts: Evolution, Species, Linguistics, Language, Phylogenetic tree, Cladistics, Common descent, Ancestor


The recent genealogical history of human populations is a complex mosaic formed by individual migration, large-scale population movements, and other demographic events. Population genomics datasets can provide a window into this recent history, as rare traces of recent shared genetic ancestry are detectable due to long segments of shared genomic material. We make use of genomic data for 2,257 Europeans (in the Population Reference Sample [POPRES] dataset) to conduct one of the first surveys of recent genealogical ancestry over the past 3,000 years at a continental scale. We detected 1.9 million shared long genomic segments, and used the lengths of these to infer the distribution of shared ancestors across time and geography. We find that a pair of modern Europeans living in neighboring populations share around 2-12 genetic common ancestors from the last 1,500 years, and upwards of 100 genetic ancestors from the previous 1,000 years. These numbers drop off exponentially with geographic distance, but since these genetic ancestors are a tiny fraction of common genealogical ancestors, individuals from opposite ends of Europe are still expected to share millions of common genealogical ancestors over the last 1,000 years. There is also substantial regional variation in the number of shared genetic ancestors. For example, there are especially high numbers of common ancestors shared between many eastern populations that date roughly to the migration period (which includes the Slavic and Hunnic expansions into that region). Some of the lowest levels of common ancestry are seen in the Italian and Iberian peninsulas, which may indicate different effects of historical population expansions in these areas and/or more stably structured populations. Population genomic datasets have considerable power to uncover recent demographic history, and will allow a much fuller picture of the close genealogical kinship of individuals across the world.

Concepts: Genetics, Genomics, Demography, Europe, Immigration, Common descent, World population, Ancestor


The genomes of human herpesviruses 6A and 6B (HHV-6A and HHV-6B) have the capacity to integrate into telomeres, the essential capping structures of chromosomes that play roles in cancer and ageing. About 1% of people worldwide are carriers of chromosomally integrated HHV-6 (ciHHV-6), which is inherited as a genetic trait. Understanding the consequences of integration for the evolution of the viral genome, for the telomere and for the risk of disease associated with carrier status is hampered by a lack of knowledge about ciHHV-6 genomes. Here, we report an analysis of 28 ciHHV-6 genomes and show that they are significantly divergent from the few modern non-integrated HHV-6 strains for which complete sequences are currently available. In addition ciHHV-6B genomes in Europeans are more closely related to each other than to ciHHV-6B genomes from China and Pakistan, suggesting regional variation of the trait. Remarkably, at least one group of European ciHHV-6B carriers has inherited the same ciHHV-6B genome, integrated in the same telomere allele, from a common ancestor estimated to have existed 24,500 ±10,600 years ago. Despite the antiquity of some, and possibly most, germline HHV-6 integrations, the majority of ciHHV-6B (95%) and ciHHV-6A (72%) genomes contain a full set of intact viral genes and therefore appear to have the capacity for viral gene expression and full reactivation.IMPORTANCE Inheritance of HHV-6A or HHV-6B integrated into a telomere occurs at a low frequency in most populations studied to date but its characteristics are poorly understood. However, stratification of ciHHV-6 carriers in modern populations due to common ancestry is an important consideration for genome-wide association studies that aim to identify disease risks for these people. Here we present full sequence analysis of 28 ciHHV-6 genomes and show that ciHHV-6B in many carriers with European ancestry most likely originated from ancient integration events in a small number of ancestors. We propose that ancient ancestral origins for ciHHV-6A and ciHHV-6B are also likely in other populations. Moreover, despite their antiquity, all of the ciHHV-6 genomes appear to retain the capacity to express viral genes, and most are predicted to be capable of full viral reactivation. These discoveries represent potentially important considerations in immune-compromised patients, in particular in organ transplantation and in stem cell therapy.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Evolution, Virus, Herpesviridae, Ancestor, Human herpesvirus 6


Many aspects of the historical relationships between populations in a species are reflected in genetic data. Inferring these relationships from genetic data, however, remains a challenging task. In this paper, we present a statistical model for inferring the patterns of population splits and mixtures in multiple populations. In our model, the sampled populations in a species are related to their common ancestor through a graph of ancestral populations. Using genome-wide allele frequency data and a Gaussian approximation to genetic drift, we infer the structure of this graph. We applied this method to a set of 55 human populations and a set of 82 dog breeds and wild canids. In both species, we show that a simple bifurcating tree does not fully describe the data; in contrast, we infer many migration events. While some of the migration events that we find have been detected previously, many have not. For example, in the human data, we infer that Cambodians trace approximately 16% of their ancestry to a population ancestral to other extant East Asian populations. In the dog data, we infer that both the boxer and basenji trace a considerable fraction of their ancestry (9% and 25%, respectively) to wolves subsequent to domestication and that East Asian toy breeds (the Shih Tzu and the Pekingese) result from admixture between modern toy breeds and “ancient” Asian breeds. Software implementing the model described here, called TreeMix, is available at

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Allele frequency, Statistical inference, Common descent, Dog, Dog breed, Ancestor


Protein engineering studies often suggest the emergence of completely new enzyme functionalities to be highly improbable. However, enzymes likely catalysed many different reactions already in the last universal common ancestor. Mechanisms for the emergence of completely new active sites must therefore either plausibly exist or at least have existed at the primordial protein stage. Here, we use resurrected Precambrian proteins as scaffolds for protein engineering and demonstrate that a new active site can be generated through a single hydrophobic-to-ionizable amino acid replacement that generates a partially buried group with perturbed physico-chemical properties. We provide experimental and computational evidence that conformational flexibility can assist the emergence and subsequent evolution of new active sites by improving substrate and transition-state binding, through the sampling of many potentially productive conformations. Our results suggest a mechanism for the emergence of primordial enzymes and highlight the potential of ancestral reconstruction as a tool for protein engineering.

Concepts: Protein, Amino acid, Metabolism, Enzyme, Tertiary structure, Phylogenetic tree, Common descent, Ancestor


Abstract A recently diagnosed 22-year-old female with no history of transmission risk factors prompted a thorough investigation of possible alternative risk factors. As the patient had evidence of advanced disease and laboratory data compatible with long-standing infection, past events were reviewed. About 10 years ago the patient shared manicure utensils with an older cousin, later known to be HIV infected; this prompted the phylogenetic analysis of the HIV sequences of both patients. Phylogenetic analyses of partial HIV-1 polymerase and envelope sequences from both patients revealed highly related sequences, with an estimated common ancestor date (about 11 years ago) that coincided with the putative sharing of manicure instruments, during a time in which the cousin was not virally suppressed. Taken together, the information about the infection of this patient suggests the use of shared manicure instruments as an alternative route of fomite HIV-1 transmission.

Concepts: Epidemiology, Infectious disease, Medical terms, Patient, Infection, Patience, Mathematical analysis, Ancestor


Ancestral environmental exposures have previously been shown to promote epigenetic transgenerational inheritance and influence all aspects of an individual’s life history. In addition, proximate life events such as chronic stress have documented effects on the development of physiological, neural, and behavioral phenotypes in adulthood. We used a systems biology approach to investigate in male rats the interaction of the ancestral modifications carried transgenerationally in the germ line and the proximate modifications involving chronic restraint stress during adolescence. We find that a single exposure to a common-use fungicide (vinclozolin) three generations removed alters the physiology, behavior, metabolic activity, and transcriptome in discrete brain nuclei in descendant males, causing them to respond differently to chronic restraint stress. This alteration of baseline brain development promotes a change in neural genomic activity that correlates with changes in physiology and behavior, revealing the interaction of genetics, environment, and epigenetic transgenerational inheritance in the shaping of the adult phenotype. This is an important demonstration in an animal that ancestral exposure to an environmental compound modifies how descendants of these progenitor individuals perceive and respond to a stress challenge experienced during their own life history.

Concepts: Psychology, Gene, Evolution, Biology, Evolutionary physiology, Ibn al-Nafis, Cousin, Ancestor


The accurate description of ancestry is essential to interpret, access, and integrate human genomics data, and to ensure that these benefit individuals from all ancestral backgrounds. However, there are no established guidelines for the representation of ancestry information. Here we describe a framework for the accurate and standardized description of sample ancestry, and validate it by application to the NHGRI-EBI GWAS Catalog. We confirm known biases and gaps in diversity, and find that African and Hispanic or Latin American ancestry populations contribute a disproportionately high number of associations. It is our hope that widespread adoption of this framework will lead to improved analysis, interpretation, and integration of human genomics data.

Concepts: United States, Demographics of the United States, Spanish language, Interpretation, Latin America, European American, English American, Ancestor


All animals must detect noxious stimuli to initiate protective behavior, but the evolutionary origin of nociceptive systems is not well understood. Here we show that noxious heat and irritant chemicals elicit robust escape behaviors in the planarian Schmidtea mediterranea and that the conserved ion channel TRPA1 is required for these responses. TRPA1-mutant Drosophila flies are also defective in noxious-heat responses. We find that either planarian or human TRPA1 can restore noxious-heat avoidance to TRPA1-mutant Drosophila, although neither is directly activated by heat. Instead, our data suggest that TRPA1 activation is mediated by H2O2 and reactive oxygen species, early markers of tissue damage rapidly produced as a result of heat exposure. Together, our data reveal a core function for TRPA1 in noxious heat transduction, demonstrate its conservation from planarians to humans, and imply that animal nociceptive systems may share a common ancestry, tracing back to a progenitor that lived more than 500 million years ago.

Concepts: Oxygen, Human, Evolution, Insect, Reactive oxygen species, Hydrogen peroxide, Common descent, Ancestor


Close relatives can share large segments of their genome identical by descent (IBD) that can be identified in genome-wide polymorphism datasets. There are a range of methods to use these IBD segments to identify relatives and estimate their relationship. These methods have focused on sharing on the autosomes, as they provide a rich source of information about genealogical relationships. We can hope to learn additional information about recent ancestry through shared IBD segments on the X chromosome, but currently lack the theoretical framework to use this information fully. Here, we fill this gap by developing probability distributions for the number and length of X chromosome segments shared IBD between an individual and an ancestor k generations back, as well as between half- and full-cousin relationships. Due to the inheritance pattern of the X and the fact that X homologous recombination only occurs in females (outside of the pseudoautosomal regions), the number of females along a genealogical lineage is a key quantity for understanding the number and length of the IBD segments shared amongst relatives. When inferring relationships among individuals, the number of female ancestors along a genealogical lineage will often be unknown. Therefore, our IBD segment length and number distributions marginalize over this unknown number of recombinational meioses through a distribution of recombinational meioses we derive. By using Bayes theorem to invert these distributions, we can estimate the number of female ancestors between two relatives, giving us details about the genealogical relations between individuals not possible with autosomal data alone.

Concepts: DNA, Human, Chromosome, Gamete, Common descent, Kinship and descent, Cousin, Ancestor