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October 1, 2015

Connecting genes to hominin teeth shows evidence of natural selection (Image 1)

Pictured foreground, left to right: The skulls of a human, a gorilla and a macaque, three of the species in which researchers looked at the genomics of enamel evolution. Pictured in the background (left to right) are undergraduates Ben Schwartz and Amalia Cong, and anthropologist Christine Wall. [See related image Here.]

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A study by a team of geneticists and evolutionary anthropologists at Duke University, funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (grant BCS 08-27552), offers insight into how evolution shaped humans' teeth. Thick tooth enamel is one of the features that distinguishes the genus Homo from primate relatives and forebears.

The team set out to identify some of the genetic changes that contributed to humans acquiring thicker enamel. The work is part of a large-scale investigation of the links between genes, physical characteristics and diet during human evolution.

For the study, which was co-authored by Christine Wall, an associate research professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke, researchers compared the human genome to those of five other primate species and in so doing, identified two segments of DNA where natural selection may have acted to give modern humans their thick tooth enamel.

By connecting genes and fossils across species--and in the future, across different age groups--the team hopes to build a roadmap for untangling how the many pieces of natural selection are linked.

To learn more about this study, see the DukeToday news story Getting to the root of enamel evolution. (Date image taken: April 2014; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: Oct. 1, 2015)

Credit: Les Todd, Duke University Photography

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