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A Neanderthal Gene That Could Affect Your Life On A Daily Basis

New research about sensitivity to pain.

Photo by Crawford Jolly on Unsplash
Our Neanderthal heritage has stuck with us after 30,000 years according to DNA results.
Source: Photo by Crawford Jolly on Unsplash

You might not know it but you could carry a Neanderthal gene that affects you on a daily basis. Neanderthals (scientific name, Homo neanderthalensis), an extinct species of humans, are our closest evolutionary relatives.

Who Were The Neanderthals?

Neanderthals existed in Western Asia and Europe until they became extinct over 30,000 years ago. Scientists believe they became extinct due to competition or extermination by immigrating modern humans or because of major climatic changes, disease, or a combination of these factors.

Some defining features of the Neanderthal skull included the large middle part of the face, angled cheek bones, and a huge nose for humidifying and warming cold, dry air. Their bodies were shorter and stockier than ours, another adaptation to living in cold environments. But their brains were just as large as ours, their skeletal system practically identical, and they were larger in proportion to their brawnier bodies. They made and used a diverse set of sophisticated tools, controlled fire, lived in shelters, made and wore clothing. They were skilled hunters of large animals and ate plant foods, occasionally making symbolic or ornamental objects. Scientists believe that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead and occasionally even marked their graves with offerings such as flowers. No other primates and no earlier human species has ever exemplified these sophisticated behaviors.

The Neanderthal Genome Project

DNA has been recovered from more than a dozen Neanderthal fossils, all from Europe; the Neanderthal Genome Project is one of the exciting new areas of human origins research. Founded in July 2006, the Neanderthal Genome Project is an effort of a group of scientists to sequence the Neanderthal genome. It stemmed from a Neanderthal female bone fragment found in a cave in the Altai mountains of Siberia from around 50,000–100,000 years ago.

Cutting-Edge New Research

A groundbreaking new study published in the September 2020 issue of Current Biology shows that some of us present-day humans carry a Neanderthal gene that causes us to be more pain-sensitive and to have more pain. According to scientists, nerve cells have a special ion channel that plays a key role in pain signals sent to the brain. Findings from the new study show that people who inherited the Neanderthal gene of this ion channel have more pain.

Using available Neanderthal DNA allows scientists to identify genetic changes present in Neanderthals. Hugo Zeberg, Svante Pääbo ,and their colleagues--researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Karolinska Institutet--found that some people especially those from Central and South America and Europe, have inherited a Neanderthal gene that encodes an ion channel that initiates the sensation of pain.

The researchers examined data from 362,944 people in a large United Kingdom population study and found that people who carry the Neanderthal variant of the ion channel have more pain. If you have that gene, you have more pain similar to someone eight years your senior. According to lead author Zeberg, "The Neanderthal variant of the ion channel carries three amino acid differences to the common, 'modern' variant."

Due to gene flow from Neanderthals, the three substitutions were found in 0.4% of people (a total of 1,327) living in 2020, leading to heightened pain sensitivity. On a molecular level, the Neanderthal ion channel is more easily activated which may explain why people who inherited it have a lowered pain threshold. "Whether Neanderthals experienced more pain is difficult to say because pain is also modulated both in the spinal cord and in the brain," says Pääbo. "But this work shows that their threshold for initiating pain impulses was lower than in most present-day humans."

In years to come, the Neanderthal Genome Project will undoubtedly reveal many more aspects of our current-day selves as they relate to our earlier ancestors.

References

Zeberg et al. (2020). A Neanderthal sodium channel increases pain sensitivity in present-day humans. Current Biology, 30, 1-5. DOI.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.06/045

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