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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Feb 2;107(5):2147-52. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0909000107. Epub 2010 Jan 19.

Mobile elements reveal small population size in the ancient ancestors of Homo sapiens.

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Department of Human Genetics, Eccles Institute of Human Genetics, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA.


The genealogies of different genetic loci vary in depth. The deeper the genealogy, the greater the chance that it will include a rare event, such as the insertion of a mobile element. Therefore, the genealogy of a region that contains a mobile element is on average older than that of the rest of the genome. In a simple demographic model, the expected time to most recent common ancestor (TMRCA) is doubled if a rare insertion is present. We test this expectation by examining single nucleotide polymorphisms around polymorphic Alu insertions from two completely sequenced human genomes. The estimated TMRCA for regions containing a polymorphic insertion is two times larger than the genomic average (P < <10(-30)), as predicted. Because genealogies that contain polymorphic mobile elements are old, they are shaped largely by the forces of ancient population history and are insensitive to recent demographic events, such as bottlenecks and expansions. Remarkably, the information in just two human DNA sequences provides substantial information about ancient human population size. By comparing the likelihood of various demographic models, we estimate that the effective population size of human ancestors living before 1.2 million years ago was 18,500, and we can reject all models where the ancient effective population size was larger than 26,000. This result implies an unusually small population for a species spread across the entire Old World, particularly in light of the effective population sizes of chimpanzees (21,000) and gorillas (25,000), which each inhabit only one part of a single continent.

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