Denisovans, Humans and the Chromosome 2 Fusion

| By on Letters to the Duchess

The Denisovans, an extinct hominid group that interbred with modern humans, made the news again lately with the publication of a more detailed study of their genome. One of the many interesting findings was that the Denisovans share the same chromosome 2 fusion that modern humans have. In this post, I review what we know about the origins of human chromosome 2, and then discuss the new Denisovan findings and their implications.

The origins of human chromosome 2: a brief review

Though I have discussed the evidence for a fusion event leading to human chromosome 2 before, perhaps a brief review of the evidence is in order. The human genome is made up of 23 pairs of chromosomes (for a total of 46 chromosomes). This makes us something of an oddity among living great apes, all the rest of whom have 24 pairs of chromosomes (for a total of 48). Given that there are many independent lines of evidence that support the conclusion that we share a common ancestor with other great apes, this poses something of a conundrum: how is it that our species arrived at this specific chromosome number? If we were to represent this “problem” on a phylogeny, or tree of relatedness, it would look something like this (not to scale):

Our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, both have 48 chromosomes, as do all other great apes such as gorillas and orangutans. This pattern has one of two explanations, one of which is much more likely than the other. Either the common ancestor to these species had 48 chromosomes, and there was an event that reduced that number to 46 specifically on the lineage leading to humans (option A), or the common ancestor species had 46 chromosomes, and there were independent, repeated events that increased chromosome number in all other great ape species (option B). We can compare these options by placing the required event(s) on the phylogeny (again, not to scale):

It should be obvious that the option that requires the fewest events is the more likely one – in this case option A with an event that reduces chromosome number in the lineage leading to humans. The other option, that of repeated, independent events to increase chromosome number, remains a formal, but unlikely, possibility. Events that reduce chromosome number are not frequent occurrences, so Option A is more likely than Option B.

We can also find further support for Option A, because it predicts a specific type of event, namely one that reduces chromosome number. Since loss of a large amount of chromosomal material is almost always detrimental, we need an event that reduces chromosome number without losing information. One way for this to happen is for two chromosomes to fuse together and become one. Initially, this event would produce an individual with 47 chromosomes, where two different chromosomes get stuck together. Contrary to what is often assumed, this individual would be fertile and able to interbreed with the others in his or her population (who continue to have 48 chromosomes). In a small population, over time, two relatives who both have one copy of the fusion chromosome may mate and produce some progeny with two copies of the fused chromosome, or the first individuals with 46 chromosomes. Since either a 48-pair set or a 46-pair set is preferable for ease of cell division, this population will either eventually get rid of the fusion variant (the most likely outcome), or by chance will switch over completely to the “new” form, with everyone bearing 46 chromosome pairs. While not overly likely, this type of event is not especially rare in mammals, and we have observed this sort of thing happening within recorded human history in other species. Some mammalian species even maintain distinct populations in the wild with differing chromosome numbers due to fusions, and these populations retain the ability to interbreed.

Further evidence for a fusion event in the lineage leading to modern humans comes from comparing synteny, or gene locations and orders on chromosomes within modern great apes – an issue we have discussed here before. In brief, what we see in human chromosome 2 is exactly what we would predict for a fusion event. When compared to other great apes, we see the genes on human chromosome 2 match up, in order, with two smaller ape chromosomes. We also see that sequences used at the tips of chromosomes are present at the proposed fusion site, and that human chromosome 2 has not one but two sites for the cell cytoskeleton to attach to for cell division – but that one of the sites is mutated and not functional, though it lines up precisely with the location of this site on the appropriate ape chromosome. Together, this evidence consistently supports both common ancestry for humans and great apes, and specifically that the difference we see in our chromosome numbers arose due to a single fusion event. I briefly discussed this evidence in my last post where I describe how I teach some of this material and the compelling impact it has on students exploring the evolution question for the first time.

Enter the Denisovans

With that as background, we are now prepared to appreciate a new finding that comes from genomics work done on the Denisovan hominids, an archaic species that is more closely related to Neanderthals than to us, but that nonetheless interbred with some anatomically modern humans as they migrated out of Africa and populated the globe. (For those not familiar with the Denisovans, or the evidence for our interbreeding with them, both Darrel Falk and I have written on this previously, here and here). Recently, a more detailed understanding of the Denisovan genome was published, and nested in the new information is the discovery that the Denisovans share the 46 chromosome set with the same fusion that we have. This strongly supports the hypothesis that the fusion event predates the separation of our species. If we were to represent this on a phylogeny, we can now place this event with more accuracy than before (as before, the phylogeny is not to scale):

Despite this new information, one obvious question remains. Did the Neanderthals also have the 46-pair set? From looking at the phylogeny above, we can see that the most likely answer is that they did, since the fact that the Denisovans had it strongly implies that the last common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals / Denisovans had it as well, and the Neanderthal-Denisovan split comes later. While the Denisovan DNA samples are of high enough quality to make this assessment, we do not yet have Neanderthal DNA of high enough quality to do the same analysis with current methods (though one additional feature of the new work on the Denisovan genome is developing more sensitive DNA sequencing techniques that may resolve this question in the future).

In other words, this fusion seems to be an ancient one, predating our species by several hundred thousand years. Present estimates of the last common ancestor between humans and Neanderthals / Denisovans range at about 800,000 years ago.

Implications for understanding our “becoming human”

The main implication from this work is that it places the fusion event well before the advent of our species. I’ve often chatted informally with Christians about evolution, and at times some have thought that this fusion event was what “started” our species, or made our species unable to interbreed with other groups. Some have even suggested that perhaps the fusion event was what produced the first human (i.e. Adam).

Note that thinking this way suggests a misunderstanding of how chromosome fusions occur and what effect they have on their hosts. A fusion does not precipitate a speciation event, but rather the individual with the fusion remains a part of his or her population, and able to interbreed, even if with reduced fertility. Also, there is no necessary biological effect or change that the fusion produces on the appearance of the organism. These misunderstandings aside, however,what this new evidence shows is that this fusion event took place long before modern humans arose at around 200,000 years ago. Indeed, the 800,000 years ago date for the last human - Denisovan common ancestor means that this is the most recent date possible for the fusion. While it is an interesting piece of our evolutionary history, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with how we came to acquire the traits that set us apart from, and ultimately outcompete, other similar species.


About the Author

Dennis Venema

Dennis Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia and Fellow of Biology for BioLogos. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer. 

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