Genomics Recapitulates History in Europe
Freelance Science Writer, Fairfield, California, United States of America
Most of us know our families back a fewgenerations but, beyond that, have littleidea who our ancestors were or where theylived. Jumping further back, all of us alivetoday likely share most of our ancestorsfrom 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Whathappened between then and now? We’vepieced together a broad picture of humankinship based on disciplines from archeol-ogy to linguistics to history. In Europe, forexample, several relatively recent migra-tions have helped shape links and gapsamongst today’s populations. Now, in thisissue of
, Peter Ralph andGraham Coop use genomic data to give usa closer look at the recent roots of modernEuropeans.Previous work has shown that genotypesin Europe vary with latitude and longi-tude, and that genetic diversity tends toincrease from north to south. To get asharper picture of the interplay betweenrecent relatedness and geography in Eu-rope, Ralph and Coop compared genome-wide sequencing data from 2,257 peopleacross the continent. The researchers usedsharing of long genome segments betweenindividual people as well as populations asa measure of common ancestry. Sharedsegments become progressively shorterback through history as they have under-gone more generations of recombination.Thus, the longer a shared segment, themore recent the common ancestor. As might be expected, comparison of these long shared segments by countrytypically showed that recent relatedness ishighest amongst people who live near eachother. There are, however, some notewor-thy departures from this norm. People inthe UK share more recent ancestors withpeople in Ireland than with others living intheir own country. Likewise, people inGermany share more recent ancestorswith the Polish than with other Germans.This pattern could reflect the migrations of smaller populations into a larger one.Similarly, while recent relatedness gen-erally drops evenly across geographicdistances in Europe, a few exceptionsstand out. Regardless of physical proxim-ity, recent relatedness is low between theItalian peninsula and the rest of thecontinent. At the other end of the scale,recent relatedness is high within northernEurope as well as across eastern Europe – three times that within other regions atsimilar distances.Ralph and Coop also used long sharedsegments to gauge how many recentancestors are common to people acrossmodern Europe, as well as roughly howlong ago they lived. Because a person doesnot inherit genetic material from everysingle ancestor, this analysis only reveals asmall fraction of the shared genealogicalrelationships; the researchers call thisfraction ‘‘genetic common ancestors.’’The distributions of long segmentsrevealed that genetic common ancestorsfrom about 500 years ago are typicallyshared only by people who live in the samecountry today. Albanian speakers are atthe high end, with about 90 geneticcommon ancestors within the last 500 years, and about 600 genetic commonancestors between the last 500 and 1,500 years . In contrast, just about any twopeople from almost anywhere acrossEurope today share hundreds of geneticancestors from more than 1,500 years ago.The outliers are the Italian and Iberian(Spain and Portugal) peninsulas, wherepeople have only about two geneticancestors in common with populationselsewhere on the continent over the last1,500 years.Ralph and Coop then take into accountthat these genetic common ancestors areonly a small fraction of the genealogicalancestors. Based on this, the researchersextrapolate that, conservatively, even peo-ple living in opposite ends of Europe todayare likely to have a shared ancestry thatincludes everyone who both lived athousand years ago and had descendants.The conclusion that all Europeans arerelated over such a short time period lendscredence to the theory that everyone in theworld is related over just the last fewmillennia. Indeed, the researchers specu-late that Europe’s common ancestors overthe past millennium may also be sharedworldwide. Another intriguing finding is that thenumbers and timing of common ances-tors among different parts of Europemay reflect major events in the conti-nent’s history. Notably, the number of common ancestors within the last 1,000to 2,000 years is particularly high withineastern Europe — similar to those inIreland despite spanning far greaterdistances — and the timing fits withthe series of migrations that began withthe Huns in the 4th century and endedwith the Slavs between the 6th and 10thcenturies.In support of linking this spike incommon ancestry with these migrations,many of today’s eastern Europeans whoshare long segments also speak Slaviclanguages. Furthermore, the regions withthe fewest common ancestors (France, andthe Italian and Iberian peninsulas) are alsothought to have been largely untouched bythe migrations of Huns and Slavs.This work both corroborates and ex-tends our understanding of Europe’srecent past, adding another dimension towhat other disciplines tell us about histor-ical events. Besides giving us a fullerpicture of the close ties between peoplearound the world, delving into our recentpast with population genomics couldultimately help answer these most basicof human questions: Where did we comefrom and how did we get here?
Ralph P, Coop G (2013) The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe.doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001555
research articles are accom-panied by a synopsis written for a general audienceto provide non-experts with insight into thesignificance of the published work.
Meadows R (2013) Genomics Recapitulates History in Europe. PLoS Biol 11(5): e1001556. doi:10.1371/ journal.pbio.1001556
May 7, 2013
2013 Robin Meadows. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the CreativeCommons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,provided the original author and source are credited.
The author has declared that no competing interests exist.* E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
PLOS Biology | www.plosbiology.org 1 May 2013 | Volume 11 | Issue 5 | e1001556