Friday, August 6, 2010

Ötzi the Iceman's DNA

"Gene Map to Give Insight into 5,200-year-old Iceman"
LiveScience (August 5, 2010)

"Iceman, the Neolithic mummy found accidentally in the Eastern Alps by German hikers in 1991, has offered researchers all sorts of clues to life 5,200 years ago, from his goat-hide coat to the meat and unleavened bread in his stomach to the arrow wound in his shoulder.

"Now, scientists stand poised to find out a whole lot more about Iceman, who also goes by Ötzi, Frozen Fritz and Similaun Man.

"They recently finished sequencing the Iceman's genome, which took about three months – a feat made possible by whole genome sequencing technology. With that map of his genes in hand, researchers are moving onto to a whole new array of questions, according to Albert Zink, head of the European Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano (EURAC) in Italy...."

The researchers should be able to work out the color of "Ötzi," the Iceman's, eyes and hair; whether disease left a mark on his genes, and how his immune system worked. All of which will help us understand what one person was like, a little over 5,000 years ago. Which in turn will help scientists figure out what diseases people dealt with then, how they lived - and how that connects with who we are today.

They've also mapped his mitochondrial DNA - which let them check for living relatives in his maternal lineage. (Background: We get the DNA for our cells' mitochondria from our mothers, the DNA in our cells' nuclei is a mix of our mother's and father's DNA.) So far, they've found no living people whose mitochondrial DNA matches the Iceman's. Which means that there aren't any - or that living maternal descendants are rare.

Once they've got his nuclear DNA ready for comparing to people alive today, they'll start checking folks living in the general area where his body was found - working on the assumption that his descendants wouldn't have moved all that far in 5,200 years.

Which, considering that I'm on the other side of an ocean from most of my ancestors of that period - is quite an assumption. Still, if they're going to check: they need to start looking somewhere.

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