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Genes from Hunter-Gatherers Provided European Farmers with Immunity Benefits

Introduction

The offspring of Stone Age farmers who migrated to Europe inherited a significant number of immunity genes from local hunter-gatherer populations. This finding challenges the notion that the development of agriculture alone was responsible for the increased resistance to pathogens in early humans.

Immune System and Farming

It has been widely believed that ancient farmers possessed stronger immune systems compared to hunter-gatherers due to their higher population density, closer contact with animals, and increased exposure to pathogens. These advantageous immunity genes would have been passed on to their descendants as farming communities expanded.

A Complex History

However, the story is more intricate than initially thought. Researchers, led by Pontus Skoglund at the Francis Crick Institute in London, discovered evidence of genetic mixing between early farmers and local hunter-gatherers in Europe.

Genome Analysis

Skoglund and his team analyzed the genomes of 677 ancient individuals from western Eurasia, spanning a period of approximately 12,000 to 5000 years ago. The genomes were divided into three groups: early farmers, European hunter-gatherers, and individuals with mixed ancestry.

Gene Inheritance and Selection

Interestingly, the analysis revealed that modern farming populations in Europe have about 20% of their ancestry traced back to hunter-gatherers. However, a specific region of the genome called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), which contains genes for adaptive immunity, showed a closer 50:50 split. This suggests that the hunter-gatherer genes in the MHC region were favored by selection processes.

Advantageous Adaptations

One possible explanation for the selection of hunter-gatherer genes is that they were better adapted to the pathogens present in western Europe. This advantage would have provided a survival edge to the offspring of the migrating farmers.

Diversity in Immunity Genes

Another interesting aspect is the concept of genetic diversity within specific functions. Hunter-gatherer populations, which typically pass on a minority of their genes, can contribute more genes for functions that require diversity, such as immunity. This diversity enables the survival of offspring against a wider range of diseases.

Importance of MHC

The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) plays a crucial role in determining an individual’s ability to withstand certain infections. A diverse MHC allows for the ability to fight off a greater number of pathogens. This further supports the selection and preservation of diverse MHC genes.

Conclusion

The study reveals the intricate genetic interactions between hunter-gatherers and migrating farmers in Europe. The inheritance of immunity genes from local populations played a significant role in shaping the immune resistance of early farmers. The diversity and adaptability of these genes offer insights into the complexity of human evolution and the development of immunity.

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