How farming changed the European genome

Fokke Gerritsen

How farming changed the European genome

When the first farmers from the Near East plowed into Europe 8500 years ago, they brought with them more than a new lifestyle—they also set in motion changes in genes that altered the way Europeans looked, digested food, and adapted to disease. In a new study published in Nature today, an international team sequenced ancient DNA from 230 people who lived 3000 to 8500 years ago in Europe, Siberia, and Turkey. Their sample included the first DNA ever sequenced from early farmers in the Near East, such as this one buried at Barcın Höyük in northwest Anatolia, in today’s Turkey. The team reported earlier this year how natural selection favored the spread of genes for white skin, tallness, and to digest sugars in milk. For today’s paper, the same researchers sequenced the DNA from additional skeletons and found that the transition to farming also favored genes to digest fats, as well as immune genes that protected against infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and leprosy. Interestingly, the team also found the spread of two gene variants associated with celiac disease. These variants may have been favored because they help compensate for a deficiency—associated with some agricultural diets—in an amino acid called ergothioneine. But the variants also have the side effect of boosting Crohn’s and other celiac diseases.