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Ancient DNA show how early populations adapted to environment

The researchers' epigenetic detection rate is a tremendous improvement over recent efforts.

By Brooks Hays
Ancient DNA show how early populations adapted to environment
Human DNA sequence. Ancient human DNA could offer clues to how early human populations responded and adapted to the environment. Photo by Gio.tto/Shutterstock

AUSTIN, Texas, May 28 (UPI) -- Researchers at the University of Texas say they've been able to detect epigenetic marks among ancient DNA recovered from human remains. The marks may offer clues as to how early human populations adapted to various environs.

Epigenetic marks are the chemical modifications made to DNA to affect how different genes are expressed. Some marks are permanent, but others are fluid, changing in response to environmental factors -- diet, disease, climate.

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By looking at epigenetic markers, researchers say clues can be gleaned as to how ancient populations responded and adapted to their varying surroundings and circumstances.

"By looking at epigenetic marks, we can better understand what genes are expressed during a person's life and how different environmental stresses shaped physical traits and health across generations," Texas researcher Rick Smith said in a press release.

Smith is the lead author of a new study on how epigenetic marks might offer anthropological clues, and even illuminate the history of human health.

Smith and his colleagues were able to gather more accurate epigenetic data using a technique called bisulfite sequencing, a method used to detect cytosine methylation, a primary epigenetic marker, among modern DNA. The method was able to locate methylation in 29 of of 30 separate ancient human recovered from five different dig sites in North America. The remains ranged in age from 230 to more than 4,500 years old.

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The detection rate is a tremendous improvement over recent efforts, which have only been able to find methylation in isolated cases.

"By studying methylation in ancient DNA from archaeological populations, not just isolated samples, we may gain insights into how past environments affected ancient societies," said Deborah Bolnick, an associate professor of anthropology at Texas. "Future research in ancient epigenetics should open a new window into the lives and experiences of people who lived long ago."

The research was published online in the journal PLOS ONE.

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