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Daily RC Article 141

Unravelling Human Evolution: The Shifting Timelines of Genetic Dating

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In order to date evolutionary divergences – when ancestors split from Neanderthals, chimpanzees and other relatives – geneticists have relied on the molecular clock i.e. the idea that genetic mutations accumulate at a steady rate over time…

If such mutations arise clocklike, then calculating the time since two organisms shared common ancestors should be as easy as dividing the number of genetic differences between them by the mutation rate.

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For decades, anthropologists used fossil calibration to generate the so-called phylogenetic rate (a phylogeny is a tree showing evolutionary relationships). They took the geologic age of fossils from evolutionary branch points and calculated how fast mutations must have arisen along the resulting lineages.

For example, the earliest fossils on the human branch after our split with chimps are identified by the fact that they seem to have walked on two legs; bipedalism is the first obvious difference that distinguishes our evolutionary lineage of hominins from that of chimps. These fossils are 7-6 million years old, and therefore the chimp-human split should be around that age. Dividing the number of genetic differences between living chimps and humans by 6.5 million years provides a mutation rate. …

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But genetic dating got messy in 2010, when improvements to DNA sequencing allowed researchers to determine the number of genetic differences between parents and their children. Known as pedigree analysis, this provides a more direct measurement of the current mutation rate within one generation, rather than an average over millions of years. Pedigree analysis counts 60-some mutations every generation; that converts to a rate approximately half the phylogenetic estimate – meaning evolutionary events would be twice as old. …

It turns out that among primates, the molecular clock varies significantly by species, sex, and mutation type.… It’s now clear that one mutation rate cannot determine the dates for all divergences relevant to human evolution. However, researchers can secure the timeline for important evolutionary events by combining new methods of genetic dating with fossils and geologic ages.

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Innovative computational methods have incorporated reproductive variables into calculations. By taking into account ages of reproduction in both sexes, age of male puberty, and sperm production rates, researchers have estimated split times that accord with the fossil record. Another new approach has analysed mutations that are mainly independent of DNA replication. It seems that certain classes of mutations, related to DNA damage, do behave more clocklike…

At least one evolutionary split was pinned down in 2016, after ancient DNA was extracted from 430,000-year-old hominin fossils from Sima de los Huesos, Spain. The Sima hominins looked like early members of the Neanderthal lineage based on morphological similarities. This hypothesis fit the timing of the split between Neanderthals and modern humans based on pedigree analysis (765,000-550,000 years ago), but did not work with the phylogenetic estimate (383,000-275,000 years ago).

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The Sima hominins belong to the Neanderthal branch after it split with modern humans. Moreover, the result provides a firm time point in our family tree, suggesting that the pedigree rate works for this period of human evolution.

Neanderthals and modern humans likely diverged between 765,000-550,000 years ago. Other evolutionary splits may soon be clarified as well, thanks to advances brought about by the mutation rate debates. Someday soon, when you see a chimp, you may be able to salute your great, great… great grandparent, with the correct number of “greats.”

Geneticists rely on the molecular clock, assuming a steady mutation rate, to date evolutionary divergences. Initially based on fossil calibration, recent improvements in DNA sequencing, particularly pedigree analysis, unveiled a discrepancy in mutation rates between generations. The variation in mutation rates among species, sexes, and mutation types has complicated dating evolutionary events. Innovative computational methods, considering reproductive factors and specific mutation types, offer new insights and align timelines with the fossil record. Ancient DNA extraction from 430,000-year-old hominin fossils in Spain clarified the split between Neanderthals and modern humans, highlighting the effectiveness of pedigree rates in human evolution dating. These debates, while challenging, promise a clearer understanding of our evolutionary past and may soon unveil more revelations in the complex web of human ancestry.
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