How Neanderthals lost their Y chromosome
(Science) Neanderthals have long been seen as uber-masculine hunks, at least compared with their lightweight human cousins, with whom they competed for food, territory, and mates. But a new study finds Homo sapiens men essentially emasculated their brawny brethren when they mated with Neanderthal women more than 100,000 years ago. Those unions caused the modern Y chromosomes to sweep through future generations of Neanderthal boys, eventually replacing the Neanderthal Y.
The new finding may solve the decade-old mystery of why researchers have been unable to find a Neanderthal Y chromosome. Part of the problem was the dearth of DNA from men: Of the dozen Neanderthals whose DNA has been sequenced so far, most is from women, as the DNA in male Neanderthal fossils happened to be poorly preserved or contaminated with bacteria. “We began to wonder if there were any male Neanderthals,” jokes Janet Kelso, a computational biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and senior author of the new study.
But in a technical breakthrough, Max Planck graduate student Martin Petr designed a set of probes that used the DNA sequence from small chunks of modern men’s Y chromosomes to “fish out” and bind with DNA from archaic men’s Y chromosomes. The new method works because the Neanderthal and modern human chromosomes are mostly similar; the DNA probes also reel in the few basepairs that differ.
The researchers probed the fragmentary Y chromosomes of three Neanderthal men from Belgium, Spain, and Russia who lived about 38,000 to 53,000 years ago, and two male Denisovans, close cousins of Neanderthals who lived in Siberia’s Denisova Cave about 46,000 to 130,000 ago. When the researchers sequenced the DNA, they got a surprise: The Neanderthal Y “looked more like modern humans’ than Denisovans’,” Kelso says.
This was a “puzzle,” Petr says, as earlier studies showed the rest of the Neanderthal nuclear genome is a closer match for Denisovans. That suggests the two groups diverged from modern humans about 600,000 years ago. But the appearance of the unusual Y chromosome parallels another genetic takeover: Neanderthal remains dating from 38,000 to 100,000 years ago contain the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of a modern human woman, instead of the ancient Neanderthal mtDNA found in earlier fossils. In that case, an early H. sapiens woman likely interbred with a Neanderthal man more than 220,000 years ago and their descendants carried the modern mtDNA.