A recent study led by researchers from UCL has revealed that humans possess genetic material inherited from Neanderthals, which influences the shape of our noses. The study suggests that a specific gene associated with a taller nose may have undergone natural selection as early humans adapted to colder climates after leaving Africa.
Dr. Kaustubh Adhikari, co-corresponding author of the study, explains that over the past 15 years, since the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, scientists have discovered that our ancestors interbred with Neanderthals, resulting in the incorporation of fragments of their DNA into our own genetic makeup. These genetic fragments, inherited from Neanderthals, are responsible for influencing certain facial features and have been passed down through generations.
The study involved more than 6,000 volunteers of mixed European, Native American, and African ancestry from Latin American countries, such as Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, and Peru. The researchers analyzed the genetic information of the participants and compared it to photographs of their faces, specifically examining the distances between specific points on their faces, such as the tip of the nose or the edge of the lips. This analysis helped identify genetic markers associated with different facial traits.
The researchers identified 33 genome regions related to face shape, and 26 of these regions were replicated in comparisons with data from other ethnic groups, including participants from East Asia, Europe, and Africa.
One particular genome region called ATF3 exhibited significant Neanderthal genetic material in individuals with Native American and East Asian ancestry. This genetic material was found to contribute to increased nasal height. Furthermore, the researchers noted signs of natural selection in this gene region, suggesting that it provided an advantage to individuals carrying this genetic material.
Dr. Qing Li, the first author of the study, explains that the shape of our noses has long been speculated to be determined by natural selection. As our noses play a role in regulating the temperature and humidity of the air we breathe, different nose shapes may be better suited to the climates in which our ancestors lived. The presence of the identified gene inherited from Neanderthals may have helped early humans adapt to colder environments as they migrated out of Africa.
Co-corresponding author Professor Andres Ruiz-Linares highlights the significance of the study's diverse sample of Latin American participants, as previous genetic studies have primarily focused on European populations. By broadening the scope of genetic research, this study contributes to a better understanding of the genetic diversity of all humans.
This finding is the second discovery indicating that DNA inherited from archaic humans, apart from Homo sapiens, impacts our facial features. In a previous study conducted by the same team in 2021, they identified a gene inherited from the ancient Denisovans that influences lip shape.
The research involved collaboration among scientists from various countries, including the UK, China, France, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Germany, and Brazil.
Source: University College London