In the last decade, Neanderthals, the now extinct homo sapiens who inhabited Eurasia around 40,000 years ago, have proven much more closely related to modern day humans than what was once thought. Neanderthal DNA, extracted from bones found in various caves around the world, has been closely examined by scientists as an explanation for human outward characteristics.
Aside from hair, nails, and skin, Neanderthal genetic material still influences the immune systems of particular populations. An article from Jef Akst expresses the relationship between modern human genomes and that of Neanderthals stating that “Neanderthal DNA at various sites in the genome influences a range of immune and autoimmune traits” (Akst). With the rise of COVID-19 and the mystery as to why it affects some populations more than others, researchers have recently started looking to Neanderthal DNA to shed some light on why certain immune systems have fallen to the virus while others recover.
While only a small percentage of humans still carry Neanderthal DNA, that small percentage bear genetic material making it hard for them to survive COVID-19. Entering the human population via gene flow, Neanderthal haplotypes, a group of genes inherited from a single parent species, “may thus be a substantial contributor to COVID-19 risk in some populations” (Zeberg). Through arduous research, scientists found a connection between humans who carry a Neanderthal inherited chromosome 3 and an increased risk of death as a result of COVID-19.
Analyzing the symptoms and DNA structure of around 3,200 COVID-19 hospitalized patients, the researchers concluded that “a gene cluster on chromosome 3 [is] a risk […] for respiratory failure after infection” where the risk is “conferred by a genomic segment…inherited from Neanderthals” (Zeberg). A heavily respiratory based virus, a chromosome that hinders the functionality of the respiratory system will obviously cause those who possess the genome to suffer. Such research has provided insight into why certain populations have been more seriously affected by COVID-19 than others, a critical observation for suppressing the virus.
While Neanderthals are not to blame for the current state of the pandemic, their DNA gives insight into some mysteries of the disastrous virus. Along with presenting one possible prerequisite for a COVID-19 complication, analyzing such genetic structure could be used to understand the prevalence of other diseases in specific cultures. An immense obstacle to understanding the human reaction to infectious diseases has been why one population reacts differently from another, and Neanderthal genomes yield information that can transform the perspective of research scientists in this field.
Akst, Jef. “Neanderthal DNA in Modern Human Genomes Is Not Silent.” The Scientist Magazine, The Scientist Magazine, 1 Sept. 2019, www.the-scientist.com/features/neanderthal-dna-in-modern-human-genomes-is-not-silent-66299.
Zeberg, Hugo, and Svante Pääbo. “The Major Genetic Risk Factor for Severe COVID-19 Is Inherited from Neanderthals.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 30 Sept. 2020, www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2818-3.