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Neandertal DNA may raise risk for some modern human diseases

Once helpful genetic hand-me-downs now have harmful implications

By
2:00pm, February 11, 2016

KISSING ANCIENT COUSINS  Interbreeding between Neandertals and early modern humans has left a genetic mark on non-Africans that may affect their health.

Finding Neandertal ancestors in the human family tree was shocking enough when researchers announced it in 2010. Now the implications for modern-day people carrying surviving Neandertal DNA may prove just as stunning.

Today, Europeans and Asians carry, on average, between 1.5 percent and 4 percent Neandertal DNA. A flurry of new studies suggests that the genetic hand-me-downs may once have helped human newcomers adjust to their new homes. But these genetic bits and pieces may no longer be helpful, and may even raise the risk of depression, heart disease, some skin conditions, allergies and other maladies. 

“There was, and still is, a lingering cost of having this admixture,” says John Capra, an evolutionary geneticist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Capra and colleagues examined DNA and electronic health records from more than 28,000 people of European descent to determine whether genes from extinct ancestors were associated with diseases.

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