May 4, 2009

Genetic study aids human history research

Cornell University scientists have created a computer program that examines small differences in people's genes to identify big events in human history.

The researchers said their program can pinpoint the origins of specific gene mutations, shedding light on times when the human population moved close to extinction and helping scientists study gene mutations that make some demographic groups more likely to develop diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

We know that many diseases are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, said Kirk Lohmueller, one of the researchers. To find the genes that contribute to disease, it's very helpful to know the demographic history of the population being studied. Accurate estimates of population events help inform the search for mutations that might have been helpful and necessary for survival at the time, but no longer necessary and potentially harmful today.

The study that included Carlos Bustamante and Andrew Clark appears in the journal Genetics.