A new study conducted by researchers from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE) in Spain has revealed that modern humans outside of Africa inherited a genetic variant from the Denisovans, an extinct species related to Neanderthals, which may have helped them adapt to the cold during the expansion out of Africa around 60,000 years ago.

According to Elena Bosch, a researcher at IBE, the team identified a variation in the SLC30A9 gene that is very common in present-day humans in Asia and Europe but not in Africa. Through genomic analysis, they determined that this variant likely comes from the Denisovans rather than the Neanderthals.

The variation affects the regulation of zinc within cells and may provide a metabolic advantage in cold climates.

Rubén Vicente, a researcher at Pompeu Fabra University who collaborated on the study, explains that zinc is an important messenger between cellular compartments. The Denisovan variant disrupts the zinc balance, promoting changes in metabolism that could be beneficial in harsh and cold environments.

While the adaptation may have originated in Asia, it spread globally and is now found in populations worldwide except in Africa. This makes it one of the Denisovan-inherited adaptations with the broadest geographical distribution.

However, the variation is also associated with a higher risk of certain psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. According to Vicente, this is likely due to the role of zinc in the excitability of the nervous system.

The discovery highlights the importance of genetic flows between different archaic human species in adapting to new environments during the expansion out of Africa.

It also underscores that the Denisovan heritage in our genome is more extensive than previously thought. Future studies will help us better understand the legacy of our extinct relatives in our biology and behavior.


Sources

Universitat Pompeu Fabra | Ana Roca-Umbert , Jorge Garcia-Calleja , et al., Human genetic adaptation related to cellular zinc homeostasis. Plos Genetics; DOI: doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1010950


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