The Future of the Race

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For example, until recently, it was thought that the Americas were settled by a single wave of nomads who travelled across a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait. But recent genome analyses , which include samples from a wide range of indigenous groups, suggest that the Americas might have been colonised by at least four independent waves of settlers. We are a restless species, and our genomes reveal that even the most intimidating geographical barriers have managed only to somewhat restrict human movements.

Today, international migration is increasing at 1 to 2 per cent per year, with million people in living in a country other than the one in which they were born. The biological implications of this massive experiment in interbreeding we are now witnessing will not be known for generations. But applying what we know about genetics and evolution can help us predict our future, including whether humans will be able to continue adapting to the constantly changing conditions on Earth. Biological adaptation is a result of natural selection, and natural selection requires diversity.

Only the genes from those individuals that are well suited to their environment at that time will reproduce, passing their genes through the sieve to the next generation. The more variation there is in the population, the better the chances that some genes present in a generation will be able to pass through the sieve and be inherited by future generations.

Unfortunately for us, humans are not very diverse. We Homo sapiens have less genetic diversity than do many species of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans — our closest living relatives — despite the fact that each of these are so few in number that they are considered either endangered or critically endangered. Our low diversity is due to the fact that we have only recently become so numerous whereas the opposite is true for our primate cousins.

There are now roughly 7. Our population has exploded in the recent past, and is continuing to grow , with some million babies born each year.

Each baby carries on average 60 new mutations in its genes. With these new gene variants comes the potential for future evolutionary change.

People today are more likely to live in an environment for which they are not biologically well-suited. Our ability to continue to adapt to the changing conditions on Earth improves as new genetic variation is introduced to our gene pool through mutations.

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But the entire human gene pool is made of many smaller gene pools, each corresponding to a particular population. The movement of people around the Earth is mixing these populations, allowing genes to flow back and forth between gene pools, with several important implications for our ongoing evolution. Like all species, human groups became adapted to local environments as we spread around the world. Yet the rapid movement of people between regions and the mixing of people with distinct characteristics means that people today are more likely to live in an environment for which they are not biologically well-suited.

Consider natural resistance to infectious diseases, which evolved in places where such diseases were common. Such geographical associations are being eroded by global migration. The prevalence of malaria, which continues to cause some , deaths each year and is especially deadly to children, has resulted in the evolution of physiological protections from infection. Examples include sickle cell disease and thalassaemia — blood conditions that can create health problems of their own but that nevertheless afford protection from the deadly disease and were therefore favoured by natural selection in regions where malaria was common.

Today, sickle cell and thalassaemia exist in places without malaria as a result both of migration and of the local eradication of malaria. Likewise, many people live in regions where their skin pigmentation is not ideal for the local sunlight intensity. The colour of human skin is determined by the amount of the pigment eumelanin, which acts as a natural sunscreen. Having a lot of eumelanin is an advantage for those who live in a place where sunlight is intense and, since our species originated in tropical Africa, the first humans were probably dark-skinned. Lighter skin evolved later in populations that migrated out of the tropics, into regions where sunlight hits the Earth more obliquely.

Not only is eumelanin needed less in such regions, it is actually problematic because our bodies require sunlight to penetrate the skin in order to produce vitamin D. With too much eumelanin, dark-skinned people living at high latitudes risk developing nutritional disorders such as rickets, which causes the skeleton to become deformed.

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This trade-off — having either too much or too little sunlight penetrating the skin — caused human populations to evolve eumelanin levels that are appropriate for their region. As people move around the world, mismatches between eumelanin and local sunlight intensity result in skin cancer and vitamin D deficiencies, both of which are considered epidemics in some regions.

A s populations blend, medium skin tones will become more common. Such blending is expected for complex traits encoded by multiple genes, such as skin pigmentation or height. But some characteristics, such as having dry earwax or thick hair, are controlled by just a single gene. Blending is not possible for these traits, which a person either has or does not have, based on the genes inherited from the parents.

What population-mixing might cause, however, is combinations of traits that were previously rare, such as dark skin and blue eyes. Just such a combination can already be found in the Cape Verde islands, whose modern population is descended from Portuguese and West Africans. In many parts of the world, blending is well underway. In highly diverse urban centres such as Singapore, inter-ethnic marriages are rising quickly — from just 7.

In the United States, interracial marriages have doubled since Not surprisingly, the number of multiracial US children climbed fold over roughly the same time span, up from just 1 per cent of all births in to 10 per cent in A distinct advantage of this blending is that beneficial traits present in one population can make their way into the other. Yet if someone with the mutation moved to South America and established a family there, the mutation could save lives and hence be passed to future generations.

A striking example comes from one of the highest altitude regions on Earth, the Tibetan plateau. Low oxygen levels are especially problematic for childbirth, and complications such as preeclampsia a pregnancy disorder are more common at higher altitudes. Although people from lower altitudes who spend extended amounts of time at high altitude can partially adjust by making more red blood cells to capture oxygen, this is an imperfect solution as it can lead to a condition known as chronic mountain sickness.

Yet Tibetans, whose ancestors have lived on the plateau for at least 30, years, are well-adapted to the low-oxygen environment, thanks in part to particular versions of the genes EGLN1 and EPAS1 , which are involved in sensing and adjusting to oxygen levels. In a paper published in , the geneticist Anna Di Rienzo, the anthropologist Cynthia Beall and colleagues showed that Tibetans can trace their ancestry to two previously distinct populations, related to modern Han Chinese and Sherpa.

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By examining the genomes of all three living populations — Tibetans, Han Chinese and Sherpa — the researchers pieced together a sequence of events in which people from the lowlands related to the modern Han Chinese migrated to higher altitudes, where they mixed with those already present relatives of the Sherpa. The beneficial EGLN1 and EPAS1 gene versions were thought to already be present in the relatives of the Sherpa, and acquiring these gene versions helped the newcomers to survive and pass on their genes.

But how did the relatives of the Sherpa come to acquire the beneficial versions of their genes in the first place? This, too, seems to be a result of mixing — not just between two different human populations but between two different species.

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Remarkably, the version of the EPAS1 gene associated with high-altitude adaptation was found in the DNA of the extinct cousins of the Neanderthals known as Denisovans, whose fossilised remains were found in a Siberian cave in The population geneticist Rasmus Nielsen and colleagues inferred from this that the EPAS1 variant made its way into the human gene pool following a tryst between a modern human and a Denisovan, members of different species that nonetheless conceived a child who survived and left descendants, some of whom became modern Tibetans.

Genomic surveys have recently detected evidence of mixing with additional extinct relatives — species like the Neanderthals and Denisovans but who are thus far unknown from the fossil record. T he benefits that come from mixing genes from different populations are well-known to plant and animal breeders.

Hybrid corn, for example, outperforms pure varieties when planted in the same fields. Consider purebred dogs. A study from the University of California, Davis compared veterinary records of 27, purebred and mixed-breed dogs, and identified 10 different genetic disorders, including elbow dysplasia and cataracts, that purebred dogs are more likely to suffer than mixed-breeds. Install Steam.

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