Scientists: Sex with Neanderthals Homo sapiens protected from viruses

Neanderthal interbreeding was shaped by viral infections. Credit Enard & Petrov

When Homo sapiens crossed paths with their Neanderthal cousins tens of thousands of years ago in Europe, they also encountered unsafe new pathogens-and, though interbreeding, the genes to fight those infections, a new study suggests.

The paper's authors, Dmitri Petrov of Stanford University and his former postdoc, David Enard of the University of Arizona, note that the H. sapiens who left Africa for Europe tens of thousands of years ago would likely have encountered pathogens that Neanderthals had always been exposed to.

The findings, led by researchers from the Universities of Arizona and Stanford, showed that while Neanderthals became extinct about 40,000 years ago, many modern Europeans and Asians today carry about 2 per cent of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes. They then identified 152 Neanderthal DNA snippets present in the genes that make these proteins.

In 2016, while working at Stanford University with researcher Dmitri Petrov, Enard found roughly a third of all protein adaptations in the human genome were triggered by viral infections. The team of researchers examined 4.500 genes from modern humans that interact with the RNA viruses. During this time the body of members of this species have developed immune defenses against viruses, widespread in Europe and Asia.

"It made much more sense for modern humans to just borrow the already adapted genetic defences from Neanderthals rather than waiting for their own adaptive mutations to develop, which would have taken much more time", added David Enard, a former postdoctoral fellow in Petrov's lab. "Modern humans and Neanderthals are so closely related that it really wasn't much of a genetic barrier for these viruses to jump".

The Cell study provides new details about the role of adaptive introgression, or hybridization between species, in human evolution.

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After a series of studies, scientists concluded that breeding humans with Neanderthals was necessary for all of their descendants.

What's more, different viruses influenced genetic swapping between the two species. These genes are the ones that interact with RNA viruses such as HIV, influenza A, and hepatitis C, suggesting that the genes that humans inherited from Neanderthals helped the ancient humans to fight off the viruses that the Neanderthals were already accustomed to.

In the current study, the investigators annotated thousands of genes in the human genome that are known to interact with pathogens-more than 4,000 of the 25,000 total genes. "Even without having access to the viruses themselves, scientists who study prehistoric epidemics will be able to learn about the pathogens that drove them".

"You can think about these hereditary adjustments like impressions from long-wiped out dinosaurs saved in fossilized mud", Enard said.

In the study, scientists show that the genetic defences that Neanderthals passed to us were against RNA viruses, which encode their genes with RNA, a molecule that is chemically similar to DNA.

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