Genetic Diversity in Humans

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You know the old saying that everyone is exactly the same? Well, it turns out to be pretty much true.

In fact, despite how different people look, everyone is about 85% the same as everyone else. But why would that be so?

Back when we were forming as a species, there weren’t too many humans and the choice in potential mates was relatively limited. The available amount of genetic material mixed until it got to where it is today.

Like other species in the animal kingdom, human interbreeding caused a genetic bottleneck, the results of which modern humans are currently experiencing.

While it is not as big of an issue for us as it is for endangered species, it has caused what we consider to be our diversity to contain an even greater amount of similarity.

Currently it is believed that there have been two major bottlenecking events in human history. The first occurred during mankind’s initial migration out of Africa; the second was the migration to North America.

Whenever a large portion of the population leaves one area and goes to another, the gene pool shrinks. And this happens not only on a large scale, but also on small ones.

In areas of the world where there are very small populations that do not readily have access to new genetic material, there is almost a continuous bottleneck. The gene pool becomes extremely limited though individuals leaving the group or simply because too much interbreeding has diluted the genetic material.

That’s when genetic problems start to pop up, such as propensities toward certain illnesses, physical deformities or interruptions in bodily or mental development.

So how do we go about adding new genetic material? At one point in human pre-history there were two methods of adding to the gene pool: random genetic mutations and mating with a hominid relative (i.e., Neanderthals).

A hotly debated topic in some circles, humans did in fact procreate with nearby Neanderthal populations. It is estimated that a sizeable segment (between 15% and 20%) of modern Europeans share genetic material with Neanderthals.

However, unlike the millennia in which we coexisted with such “genetic kissing cousins,” humans no longer have a related, biologically compatible source of genetic material for increasing diversity, which leaves unpredictable mutations as our only natural source.

There really isn’t anything that we can do in terms of preventing problems from occurring, short of genetic engineering. And of course, that is an even more hotly debated topic than mating with Neanderthals. Homogeneity of the species, rather than diversity, is our likely future.

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Lex Cavemen

LEX is the scientist. He is obsessed with understanding why and how the world around him works the way it does.

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