If you’re of European descent and notice your waistline getting wider, you don’t have to blame it on croissants, cream sauces or your mother anymore. A new study found that the cause of your tight jeans could be your Neanderthal genes.
It all started last December when researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology sequenced the genome of Neanderthals. Evolutionary biologist Philipp Khaitovich of the CAS-MPG Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai, China, compared the genome to those of Africans, Asians and Europeans and found that Europeans had triple the number of genes used in lipid catabolism, the process of breaking down fats to create energy, that Asians had. Because contact and possible interbreeding with Neanderthals happened in the Middle East, Africans inherited none of these genes.
Reporting on his findings in Nature Communications, Khaitovich says these fatty acid genes helped Neanderthals and early Europeans break down more fat to create the energy needed to survive in the harsh northern European climate. Unfortunately, today those fatty acid genes do more to hurt survival rates by contributing to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Study coauthor and theoretical evolutionary biologist Michael Lachmann says that while the lipid catabolism difference between Europeans and Asians is clear, the moment it happened is not. Also, it doesn’t confirm that that the transfer of this genetic variation occurred through sexual encounters or via a common ancestor.
It’s nice to be able to blame our fat on genomes from Neanderthals. Because two-thirds of our brains are built of these fatty acids, I wonder what else we may have inherited from them. Facebook?