The people who reached the Americas from Siberia may have possessed a special quality. The bridge from Siberia to Alaska was not hard to spot—Beringia was a land mass the size of a continent before it sank. So why did only a handful of groups succeed in making their way across? An obvious possibility is that Siberia and Beringia were cold places in which not everyone could survive. It may have been no accident that people of the mitochondrial lineages A, B, C, D and X were the only ones to reach the Americas. According to a proposal by Wallace, these mitochondria may have conferred a special resistance to cold.
Human mitochondrial lineages, Wallace has pointed out, are geographically patterned not just by continent but also by latitude. The most ancient lineages, L1, L2 and L3, are specific to sub-Saharan Africa. It was only carriers of L3 who moved northward into northeast Africa, and only L3's daughter lineages, M and N, that left Africa to colonize temperate zones. Wallace wondered if that distribution might be not just a matter of chance, as generally assumed, but rather of natural selection. Mitochondria produce the body's energy and heat, and survival in cold and even temperate climates could depend a great deal on which lineage of mitochondria a person inherited.
Mitochondria release their output in the form either of heat or of an energy-carrying chemical known as ATP. The balance between heat and ATP production can vary, depending on DNA changes in the mitochondrial genes that operate the energy production system. People living in cold climates would be better off with mitochondria adapted to produce more heat and less chemical energy. If so, Wallace argued, their mitochondrial genes should show f signs of having been under pressure from natural selection. In testing mitochondrial DNAs from around the world, Wallace has found that some do indeed bear the marks of positive selection, particularly those of people who live in Siberia or whose ancestors did, such as most American Indians. The groups of mitochondrial lineages known as A, C, D and G are particularly common among arctic people; 75% of them belong to one of these four groups, but only 14% of Asians living in temperate zones do. Some European lineage
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