But mitochondria -- the tiny organelles that serve as energy factories inside all human cells -- have their own genome. Besides containing 37 genes that rarely change, they contain a "hypervariable" region, which changes fast enough to provide a molecular clock calibrated to times comparable to the age of modern humanity. Because each person's mitochondrial genome is inherited from his or her mother, all mitochondrial lineages are maternal.
To infer mtEve's age, scientists must convert the measures of relatedness between random blood donors into a measure of time.
"You have to translate the differences between gene sequences into how they evolved in time," said co-author Krzysztof Cyran, vice head of the Institute of Informatics at Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice, Poland. "And how they evolved in time depends upon the model of evolution that you use. So, for instance, what is the rate of genetic mutation, and is that rate of change uniform in time? And what about the process of random loss of genetic variants, which we call genetic drift?"
Within each model, the answers to these questions take the form of coefficients -- numeric constants that are plugged into the equation that returns the answer for when mtEve lived.
Each model has its own assumptions, and each assumption has mathematical implications. To further complicate matters, some of the assumptions are not valid for human populations. For example, some models assume that population size never changes. That is not true for humans, whose population has grown exponentially for at least several thousand generations. Other models assume perfect mixing of genes, meaning that any two humans anywhere in the world have an equal chance of producing offspring.
Cyran said human genetic models have become more complex over the past couple of decades as theorists have tried to correct for invalid assumptions. But some of the corrections -- like
|Contact: Jade Boyd|