Rain forest refuges
Springer Online Journal Archives 1860-2000
Summary The identification of genetically coherent populations is essential for understanding human evolution. Among the culturally uniform ethnic groups of west Africa, there are two geographically distinct populations with high frequencies of sickle-cell hemoglobin (HbS). Although the HbS mutation in each group is found on distinguishable chromosomes 11, these populations have been assumed to be parts of a single population. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in these populations demonstrated that the two populations identified by alternative chromosomes 11 bearing HbS have distinct distributions of mitochondrial genotypes, i.e., they are maternally separate. These studies also showed that, contrary to expectation, the mtDNA of some individuals is heteroplasmic. For nuclear loci, a comparison of the frequency of alternative alleles established that these populations are genetically distinct. Both the mitochondrial and nuclear data indicate that these populations have been separate for approximately 50,000 years. Although HbS in the two populations is usually attributed to recent, independent mutations, the duration of the separation and the observed geographic distribution of the population allow for the possibility of an ancient origin of HbS. Assuming an ancient mutation and considering the known biogeography, we suggest that HbS protected selected populations from malaria in rain forest refuges during the most recent ice age.
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