Figure The Universal Human Y Chromosome

Only men carryaYchromosome. In each generation, some men have no children or only daughters, reducing the number of Y chromosomes in the population, until only one remains. This is why all men in the world carry a Y chromosome inherited from a single individual—the Adam of the Y chromosome—who lived in the ancestral human population. The same is true of mitochondrial DNA and the mitochondrial Eve. By looking at the most informative of the mutations on the Y chromosome, geneticists can assign every man to one lineage or another. Since there is only one Y chromosome, all these lineages or branches eventually coalesce to a single trunk, the Y chromosome of the original "Adam."

Mutations get incorporated into the Y chromosome at a fairly steady rate, which enables geneticists to put a date on each branch point by counting the number of mutations down a lineage. And the lineages can be assigned not only a date but a geographical location. This is because human populations were expanding across the globe at the time the mutations of interest occurred but then, to a remarkable extent, people lived and bred in the same place they were born. So geneticists can impose the Y chromosome tree across the map of the world, assigning each of its forks and lineages to specific geographical regions. Of particular help in defining the ancestral human population is the lineage of men that left Africa. A few men inside Africa, and all men outside it, carry a Y chromosome mutation known as M168. This means that modern humans left Africa sometime shortly after the M168 mutation occurred. Based on the mutation-counting method, one recent estimate is that M168 occurred 44,000 years ago.65 Genetic dates, however, generally come with a wide range of possible error. This one, say Peter Underhill and colleagues at Stanford University, could range anywhere between 39,000 and 89,000 years ago. The root of the Y chromosome tree dates to 59,000 years ago, though this too has a wide range of possibilities, from 40,000 to 140,000 years ago. Still, a date around 59,000 years ago seems a reasonable estimate for the time when the Y chromosomal Adam walked the earth. This date fits well with a date of 50,000 years ago for the ancestral human population, because genes tend to have slightly deeper ancestries than do populations.

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