Africa Allan Charles Wilson barcodes BioLogos bottlenecks Charles Darwin Cliff Notes D.S. Thaler Daily Mail DNA Ernst Mayr Forbes Genetics and the Origin of Species Homo sapiens Human Evolution (journal) Human Origins isolation lineage sorting M.Y. Stoeckle Mark Stoneking Michael Marshall mitochondria mitochondrial Eve Nature (journal) News Peaceful Science phylogeography Rebecca Louise Cann selective gene sweeps speciation species theistic evolution Theodosius Dobzhansky Women Y chromosome Y-chromosome Adam

Does Barcoding DNA Reveal a Single Human Pair 200,000 Years Ago?



With its publication within the journal Human Evolution a few weeks in the past, a scientific paper lit up the science blogosphere. The paper asks, “Why should mitochondria define species?” Why has it brought on such debate amongst scientists and lay individuals taken with origins questions?

The paper doesn’t appear at first look to be notably earthshaking. However the quake hits on the finish of the summary, the place authors M.Y. Stoeckle and D.S. Thaler say:

A number of convergent strains of proof present that mitochondrial variety in trendy people follows from sequence uniformity adopted by the buildup of largely impartial variety throughout a inhabitants enlargement that started roughly 100,000 years in the past. An easy speculation is that the extant populations of just about all animal species have arrived at a comparable outcome consequent to a comparable strategy of enlargement from mitochondrial uniformity inside the final one to a number of hundred thousand years. 

Right here’s the Cliff Notes model: In response to the authors all our mitochondria got here from a very small inhabitants about 1 to 200,000 years in the past, maybe as small as a inhabitants measurement of two, although later within the paper they qualify that quantity. In accordance with Stoeckle and Thaler, the identical timeframe is true for 90 % of animal species. No marvel so many individuals within the theistic evolution/creation dispute acquired irritated or excited. Theistic evolutionists noticed it as an event for fanning the flames of anti-evolutionary sentiment. Younger earth creationists noticed it as proof for the ark. 

The research has been headlined by sensationalist information retailers. It has been seized upon by creationists, and it has roused the curiosity of strange individuals.

The Day by day Mail introduced:

All people could also be descended from simply TWO individuals and a catastrophic occasion virtually worn out ALL species 100,000 years in the past, research suggests.

That’s fairly inflammatory. Michael Marshall at Forbes was extra skeptical:

No, People Are In all probability Not All Descended From A Single Couple Who Lived 200,000 Years In the past

BioLogos and Peaceable Science revealed items, with Peaceable Science extra disparaging. Apparently, the evolutionist blogs I visited had not commented,

What to Make of It?

Nicely, I’m unwilling to dismiss the article flat out, however neither can I endorse it. I don’t assume the research can declare all of the issues it does based mostly on the proof they’ve. That I take this strategy is ironic. I personally am investigating the potential for our origin from a single human pair, so my opinion just isn’t as a result of I exclude the thought a priori. But I need to confess I’ve reservations. Too many unanswered questions.

I’m additionally sympathetic as a result of I’ve seen techniques used on Stoeckle and Thaler just like these which were used on ID proponents. Denigrating the journal the article was revealed in, and subsequently declaring the work is junk, is faulty as an argument, as a result of controversial papers might not ever see the sunshine of day besides in non-conformist journals. Saying they’re ignorant or worse, dishonest, with out first analyzing the work by itself phrases, is just unfair, and advert hominem.

Mitochondrial Eve

A furor erupted in 1987 with the publication within the journal Nature of a paper by Rebecca Louise Cann, Mark Stoneking, and Allan Charles Wilson referred to as “Mitochondrial DNA and Human Evolution.” The authors described tracing again mitochondrial lineages to a single supply, a lady “postulated to have lived about 200,000 years ago, probably in Africa.” The press took the thought and ran with it, calling the paper proof for Eve, or mitochondrial Eve as she was dubbed. Not lengthy after, research carried out with Y chromosomes got here up with estimates for the origin of Y chromosomal lineages in “Y-chromosome Adam.” Unique estimates traced the Y chromosome lineage again about 90,000 years.

A number of issues to notice: 

It’s notoriously troublesome thus far both mitochondrial genes or Y-chromosome genes. They every have totally different mutation charges from the remainder of the genome, and they’re each handed on solely by way of one intercourse (feminine or male respectively). And when learning a number of species, the inhabitants measurement and era occasions can affect dates. As a sign of the difficulties, the date estimates for each mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam have diversified significantly through the years.

One other main level that should not be ignored is how genetic lineages behave. In the event you comply with lineages backward in time, they have a tendency to coalesce. Tracing a lineage again to at least one particular person doesn’t imply that particular person was the one individual alive on the time, solely that the genetic lineage coalesced, that it may’t be traced again additional. 


Let’s take a look at human lineages. Once you draw a household tree, you’ll shortly discover how many individuals by no means produce any progeny. They die younger or they by no means marry. Particularly, as a result of solely ladies move on mitochondria (or almost all the time), if a lady has no daughters, her mitochondrial lineage ceases. 

Take a look at this determine. It traces the lineages of girls going again eight generations. On the prime is the ancestral era with eleven people. I’ve coloured one lady and her descendants white. Within the remaining era, solely her lineage persists. Working from the current backwards, you’ll be able to comply with the sample because it coalesces into one lineage, that one lady’s on the primary line. Word additionally that mitochondria, as a result of they’re handed from mom to daughter, by no means have an admixture of the paternal and maternal DNA. This hurries up the consequences of useful gene sweeps.

Now, actual lineages often don’t coalesce so shortly, until one thing extraordinary occurred prior to now. That is solely a cartoon. However lineages do coalesce, all the time, because of stochastic processes, and for people mitochondrial coalescence occurs in 1-200,000 years, the identical time-frame that Stoeckle and Thaler suggest.

Was that “original” lady in my illustration the one lady alive in her era? In my illustration, no. Have been there generations earlier than her? We will’t inform. I didn’t embrace them. There might have been many. Thus, though all mitochondria hint again to at least one mitochondrial genome, one lady, about 200,000 years in the past, that doesn’t imply that lady was the one one alive on the time, or the primary lady alive. We would wish different sources of data to find out these issues. For mitochondrial Eve, all we now have is the coalescence of mitochondrial lineages to at least one. We will’t inform, by this technique, based mostly solely on this proof, whether or not she was the one lady or the primary lady or neither.

Deciphering Barcoding 

Now to return to Stoeckle and Thaler’s paper. Their paper has a few of these similar difficulties, since they’re working with mitochondrial DNA. In reality, they used a method referred to as barcoding. A small stretch of DNA from a specific mitochondrial gene is sequenced from many people in lots of species — over 5 million by now. Utilizing this system it has been proven that the sequence variation between people of a species is small and clustered, whereas the sequence variation is distinct and separate between species, even intently associated species.  This sample of distinctive sequence variation is what permits species identification.


Sarcastically, the most important a part of the paper has acquired no consideration from the media. It offers with the reliability of barcodes to detect species, after which with the species idea itself, not the controversial dates. The authors come down squarely on the aspect of species as recognizable, distinct organic groupings, not smearing collectively as Darwin may recommend, however having distinctive sequences that 90 % of the time could be reliably grouped. This view of species as discrete entities goes towards the fashionable grain. They are saying:

In a founding doc of phylogeography, Avise and colleagues famous the long-standing divide in biology between the mental lineages of Linnaeus for whom species are discrete entities and people of Darwin who emphasize incremental change inside species resulting in new species [4]. They presciently proposed that mitochondrial evaluation would offer a method to bridge the mental hole. DNA barcoding now offers probably the most complete database permitting a kingdom-wide and quantitative realization of that imaginative and prescient.

They spotlight this concept in a number of locations, by quoting well-known however older sources, for instance, Dobzhansky in his e-book Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937):

In different phrases, the dwelling world just isn’t a single array of people during which any two variants are related by unbroken collection of intergrades, however an array of kind of distinctly separate arrays, intermediates between that are absent or at the least uncommon. Every array is a cluster of people, often possessing some widespread traits and gravitating to a particular modal level of their variation.… Subsequently the organic classification is concurrently a man-made system of pigeonholes devised for the pragmatic objective of recording observations in a handy method and an acknowledgement of the very fact of natural discontinuity.

After which Ernst Mayr (1942, quoted in Provine, W.B., Ernst Mayr: Genetics and speciation. Genetics, 2004. 167(three): pp. 1041-6):

The decreased variability of small populations shouldn’t be all the time as a consequence of unintentional gene loss, however typically to the truth that your complete inhabitants was began by a single pair or by a single fertilized feminine. These “founders” of the inhabitants carried with them solely a very small proportion of the variability of the father or mother inhabitants. This “founder” precept typically explains even the uniformity of slightly giant populations, notably if they’re nicely remoted and close to the borders of the vary of the species.

These concepts have fallen out of favor, however maybe deserve revisiting. The thought of speciation as the results of isolation of small populations, with fixation of restricted variety as a outcome, is one thing barcodes have revivified. The sample seen in barcodes is proof that have to be accounted for.

Stoeckle and Thaler talk about a number of fashions for a way speciation may happen (lineage sorting, selective gene sweeps, and bottlenecks), coming squarely down in favor of bottlenecks because the quickest method to get genetic uniformity to happen. Bottlenecks are one of the best rationalization for the barcode patterns they observe, they assume.

The clustering of barcode variation doesn’t blur between species, as one would anticipate based mostly on the idea of impartial mutation and genetic drift.  The authors suggest that the rationale for the clustering inside species and separation between species is a bottleneck occasion (a inhabitants crash) for all species, together with people, that primarily reset the mitochondrial genomes inside species to uniformity, and between species to distinctiveness. A bottleneck, or sudden inhabitants discount, may be regarded as a sudden coalescence to at least one or a few lineages inside a species — solely the survivors’ genetic lineages persist. This additionally will increase the variability between species, by pruning away any overlap. These populations then develop and accumulate new mutations over time. It’s “new” mutations that Stoeckle and Thaler use to estimate the 1-200,000 yr previous date.

Critical Issues

The only most significant issue they face is how one can interpret the clustering of barcode sequences inside species — sluggish coalescence (lineage sorting) or quick coalescence (a bottleneck). Mitochondrial lineages coalesced at about 1-200,000 years in the past, as proven by mitochondrial Eve. That’s the similar time-frame that Stoeckle and Thaler suggest for his or her inhabitants crashes. However as we now have seen, coalescence, or lineage sorting as they name it, doesn’t require a catastrophic occasion or a new starting. It could possibly be sluggish lineage sorting, what I’ve referred to as coalescence, or quick lineage sorting, what they name a bottleneck. 

Easy methods to decide this? It seems the coalescence fee is inversely proportional to the efficient inhabitants measurement. But 90 % of all species have the identical quantity of clustered sequence distinction. That is a real conundrum that must be defined. Both a sudden bottleneck successfully sped up coalescence, or the efficient inhabitants measurement for all these species was fixed and of comparable measurement. The authors analyzed very totally different sorts of species, although, making equal efficient inhabitants measurement extremely unlikely. That they had to decide on between two unbelievable conditions: common efficient inhabitants measurement or a common bottleneck — each unlikely equalities. They selected the bottleneck because the much less unbelievable.

Is there unbiased proof from fossils or geology to point a bottleneck? They talk about briefly whether or not or not fossils present sudden large extinctions at the moment interval with no clear conclusion. One other query requested can also be touched on: have they examined different mitochondrial genes? Or can we see the identical sample of clustered variation in nuclear genes? So far as I do know there’s not sufficient genomic sequence from any species aside from human to inform. 

A lot of the paper is spent defending the reliability of barcoding and the distinctiveness of species, for causes that must be clear now. It’s from this stuff they derive help for the idea of speciation by bottleneck. From these two issues comes their estimate of an origin for Homo sapiens in a bottleneck 1-200,000 years in the past. That’s loads of controversy to tackle. They acknowledge this of their final sentence.

This vista of evolution is greatest seen from the passenger seat.

It appears to me they’ve elected to drive.

Photograph credit score: Christiaan Colen, by way of Flickr (cropped).

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