Epigenetic Study: How Environments Affected Ancient Humans

A new study from The University of Texas at Austin concluded that there are epigenetic marks on DNA that can be found in a high degree of ancient human remains, and that these signs can shed light on the effects that the natural environment had on ancient populations.

Explaining epigenetic marks

Epigenetics examines the chemical adjustments to DNA. These modifications are known as epigenetic “marks,” and they contribute to deciding which genes are expressed. Typically, epigenetic marks stay constant throughout a person’s life, but can be altered when environmental factors like diseases, climate and diet come into play. Moreover, if such an alteration is made to sperm or egg DNA, the changes on DNA will become hereditary.

The study looks at these epigenetic marks of ancient humans, and attempts to understand the genes that are expressed during their lives, as well as how environmental factors have molded their physical traits and health properties throughout generations.

Studying epigenetics in North America

The team of scientists searched specifically for the epigenetic mark known as cytosine methylation. They sought this mark in the ancient remains of 30 humans from five archaeological sites throughout North America. The remains ranged from 230 to more then 4,500 years old. Fortunately, the scientists recovered samples of cytosine methylation in a surprising 29 of the remains.

To study these marks, the researchers employed a technique called bisulfite sequencing, a method popularly used to study methylation in modern DNA. Initially, they didn’t think that this technique would work on ancient DNA, as it reduces the DNA. Fortunately, the results proved otherwise.

The successful study proves that examining ancient DNA from concentrate archaeological populations could potentially give us a lot of insight into how natural environments in the past affects populations and societies. This could tell us even more about the lives that ancient humans lived.

Previous studies examining epigenetic marks

One of the most notable studies of epigenetics was of people who suffered from famine in utero during World War II. The study showed striking changes in epigenetics that related directly to diet, metabolism and physical growth. Other current DNA studies show that the changes in epigenetics are related to types of cancer, and potentially to the development of cancer.