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Human Immune Systems Strengthened By Neanderthal Interbreeding

August 22, 2011

A Stanford University scientist is claiming that interbreeding between human ancestors and Neanderthals that took place between 65,000 and 90,000 years ago may have helped our kind survive and gain evolutionary dominance.

According to Peter Parham, an immunology expert at the California university’s medical school, crossbreeding between the two species “provided humans with a ready-mixed cocktail of disease-resistant genes when the species first ventured out of its native Africa,” Graeme Paton of the Telegraph reported on Sunday.

“We like to think our superior brainpower means we survived while they perished.  But we may not have been alive today, if it were not for the Neanderthals,” added Daily Mail Science Correspondent Fiona Macrae. “Studies show that we owe much of the power of our immune system to genes we picked up from our caveman cousins.”

Macrae reports that Parham studied a group of more than 200 genes known as human leukocyte antigens (HLA), which she said are “key to the workings of the immune system.” The Stanford University professor discovered than some of the HLA genes of modern humans are identical to those found in Neanderthals, including one immune system gene that is “quite common in modern European and Asian populations but absent in modern Africans.”

Professor Parham’s results could be explained by interbreeding between the two ‘tribes’ passing immunity to disease developed by the Neanderthals after they’d left Africa our way,” the Daily Mail Science Correspondent added. “The professor told a meeting of the Royal Society in London that this interbreeding instilled modern man with a ‘hybrid vigor’ that allowed it to go on and populate the world.”

The possibility of interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern mankind was first considered by scientists in May 2010, when Svante Paabo, director of evolutionary genetics at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, and an international team of experts concluded that the two species had intermingled sometime between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.

“As a result, between one and four per cent of our DNA comes from the prehistoric creature, according to the research,” Telegraph Science Correspondent Richard Alleyne wrote in a May 6, 2010 article.

“The discovery emerged from the first attempt to map the complete Neanderthal genetic code, or genome. It more or less settles a long-standing academic debate over interbreeding between separate branches of the human family tree,” he added.

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