Monday, October 24, 2011

Human genes still evolve rapidly

A Harvard group has found evolution in response to natural selection in a contemporary human population, showing a dramatic decrease in age of reproduction in a defined population since 1720. Context on the location of their study:
Ile aux Coudres is a 34-km2 island located ∼80 km to the northeast of Québec City along the St. Lawrence River (Canada). Thirty families settled on the island between 1720 and 1773 and the population reached 1,585 people by the 1950s. This population is ideal to study the genetic basis of life-history traits (LHTs). First, church registers provide exceptionally detailed records of dates of births, marriages, and deaths. Second, the long-term data and endogamy (marriages within the population) provide a deep and intricate pedigree to facilitate the separation of genetic and environmental influences on LHTs. Third, the population was very homogeneous among families, particularly in traits known to correlate with the timing of reproduction (social class, education, and religion). In addition, the split of resources among families was quite even due to the type of land distribution, and the number of professions was limited. This relative homogeneity should minimize confounding socioeconomic or shared environmental influences within quantitative genetic analyses.
Here is their abstract:
It is often claimed that modern humans have stopped evolving because cultural and technological advancements have annihilated natural selection. In contrast, recent studies show that selection can be strong in contemporary populations. However, detecting a response to selection is particularly challenging; previous evidence from wild animals has been criticized for both applying anticonservative statistical tests and failing to consider random genetic drift. Here we study life-history variation in an insular preindustrial French-Canadian population and apply a recently proposed conservative approach to testing microevolutionary responses to selection. As reported for other such societies, natural selection favored an earlier age at first reproduction (AFR) among women. AFR was also highly heritable and genetically correlated to fitness, predicting a microevolutionary change toward earlier reproduction. In agreement with this prediction, AFR declined from about 26–22 y over a 140-y period. Crucially, we uncovered a substantial change in the breeding values for this trait, indicating that the change in AFR largely occurred at the genetic level. Moreover, the genetic trend was higher than expected under the effect of random genetic drift alone. Our results show that microevolution can be detectable over relatively few generations in humans and underscore the need for studies of human demography and reproductive ecology to consider the role of evolutionary processes.

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