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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Human genetic differentiation across the Strait of Gibraltar

Mathias Currat*, Estella S Poloni and Alicia Sanchez-Mazas*

Author Affiliations

Laboratory of Anthropology, Genetics and Peopling history (AGP), Department of Anthropology, University of Geneva, Switzerland

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:237  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-237

Published: 3 August 2010

Abstract

Background

The Strait of Gibraltar is a crucial area in the settlement history of modern humans because it represents a possible connection between Africa and Europe. So far, genetic data were inconclusive about the fact that this strait constitutes a barrier to gene flow, as previous results were highly variable depending on the genetic locus studied. The present study evaluates the impact of the Gibraltar region in reducing gene flow between populations from North-Western Africa and South-Western Europe, by comparing formally various genetic loci. First, we compute several statistics of population differentiation. Then, we use an original simulation approach in order to infer the most probable evolutionary scenario for the settlement of the area, taking into account the effects of both demography and natural selection at some loci.

Results

We show that the genetic patterns observed today in the region of the Strait of Gibraltar may reflect an ancient population genetic structure which has not been completely erased by more recent events such as Neolithic migrations. Moreover, the differences observed among the loci (i.e. a strong genetic boundary revealed by the Y-chromosome polymorphism and, at the other extreme, no genetic differentiation revealed by HLA-DRB1 variation) across the strait suggest specific evolutionary histories like sex-mediated migration and natural selection. By considering a model of balancing selection for HLA-DRB1, we here estimate a coefficient of selection of 2.2% for this locus (although weaker in Europe than in Africa), which is in line with what was estimated from synonymous versus non-synonymous substitution rates. Selection at this marker thus appears strong enough to leave a signature not only at the DNA level, but also at the population level where drift and migration processes were certainly relevant.

Conclusions

Our multi-loci approach using both descriptive analyses and Bayesian inferences lead to better characterize the role of the Strait of Gibraltar in the evolution of modern humans. We show that gene flow across the Strait of Gibraltar occurred at relatively high rates since pre-Neolithic times and that natural selection and sex-bias migrations distorted the demographic signal at some specific loci of our genome.