April 16, 2008

Skin color evolution in Europeans and Social skin color vs Disease in Puerto Ricans

Science last year (thanks commenter!) had a news story about the evolution of European skin color:
Researchers have disagreed for decades about an issue that is only skin-deep: How quickly did the first modern humans who swept into Europe acquire pale skin? Now a new report on the evolution of a gene for skin color suggests that Europeans lightened up quite recently, perhaps only 6000 to 12,000 years ago. This contradicts a long-standing hypothesis that modern humans in Europe grew paler about 40,000 years ago, as soon as they migrated into northern latitudes. Under darker skies, pale skin absorbs more sunlight than dark skin, allowing ultraviolet rays to produce more vitamin D for bone growth and calcium absorption. "The [evolution of] light skin occurred long after the arrival of modern humans in Europe," molecular anthropologist Heather Norton of the University of Arizona, Tucson, said in her talk.
This seems to be in agreement with accelerating recent selection in the human genome. The Science story is referring to the AAPA 2007 meeting. More from the Science story regarding the SLC24A5 gene:
The genetic origin of the spectrum of human skin colors has been one of the big puzzles of biology. Researchers made a major breakthrough in 2005 by discovering a gene, SLC24A5, that apparently causes pale skin in many Europeans, but not in Asians. A team led by geneticist Keith Cheng of Pennsylvania State University (PSU) College of Medicine in Hershey found two variants of the gene that differed by just one amino acid. Nearly all Africans and East Asians had one allele, whereas 98% of the 120 Europeans they studied had the other (Science, 28 October 2005, p. 601).
This is a wonderful confirmation of Cavalli-Sforza's prediction about recent selection for skin color:
Either way, the implication is that our European ancestors were brown-skinned for tens of thousands of years--a suggestion made 30 years ago by Stanford University geneticist L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza. He argued that the early immigrants to Europe, who were hunter-gatherers, herders, and fishers, survived on ready-made sources of vitamin D in their diet. But when farming spread in the past 6000 years, he argued, Europeans had fewer sources of vitamin D in their food and needed to absorb more sunlight to produce the vitamin in their skin. Cultural factors such as heavier clothing might also have favored increased absorption of sunlight on the few exposed areas of skin, such as hands and faces, says paleoanthropologist Nina Jablonski of PSU in State College.
Perhaps it was the larger population sizes made possible by farming that made it possible for the adaptive mutation to arise in one individual, or the mutation pre-existed in early agriculturalists.

I was looking through the book of abstracts (pdf) of this year's AAPA 2008, and another skin color-related abstract caught my attention:
Social classification, skin color, and genetic ancestry: a bio-cultural analysis of health disparities.

A.L. Non, C.C. Gravlee, C.J. Mulligan. Dept. of Anthropology, University of Florida.

Consistent disparities in health are well documented across racially defined groups for many complex diseases. Researchers have proposed both genetic and socio-cultural hypotheses to explain these disparities, but few studies combine both genetic and sociocultural data to test competing hypotheses directly. Here we address this problem in the context of debate about hypertension in populations of African descent. Some researchers suggest that people of greater African ancestry are genetically predisposed to develop high blood pressure. In support of this hypothesis, some researchers point to preliminary evidence of a modest association between blood pressure and genetic estimates of African ancestry. However, the association between ancestry and disease phenotypes may be due to residual confounding with environmental stressors such as discrimination and poverty. Our study, based on fieldwork in southeastern Puerto Rico, is the first to test these alternatives. We incorporate genetic measures of ancestry, genotyping of candidate genes, and an ethnographically derived measure of social classification that estimates how individuals’ color is perceived in everyday social interactions. We find that social classification of color, but not genetic ancestry, is associated with both systolic and diastolic blood pressure through an interaction with socioeconomic status. These findings emphasize the importance of gathering bociocultural data in studies on health and disease, rather than relying on skin color or genetic ancestry as a proxy for potential disease status.

Remember that while skin color is correlated with ancestry, the correlation is not perfect, i.e., a person with more Caucasoid than Negroid ancestry could in fact be darker than a person with more Negroid than Caucasoid ancestry (*). On top of that, the social perception of skin color may blur the picture even more, since skin color is not value-neutral in most multiracial societies. Thus, "social skin color" is two levels removed from "ancestry". What this abstract suggests is that "social skin color", rather than "ancestry" is the culprit for the disease discrepancies. Hopefully a paper on this will follow.

(*) "More" within reason, e.g., a 100% Caucasoid will be almost always lighter than a 100% Negroid.

16 comments:

Artem said...

Well, this appears to be referring to the previous AAPA meeting. Otherwise, I don't get how an April 2007 story may be related to what happened a year later:-)

Dienekes said...

Yes, funny that it popped up on my Science feed today. I will edit the post to reflect this.

Richard Sharpe said...

So in countries that are predominantly white (95%) can we infer that poor people suffer more hypertension because of discrimination?

n/a said...

or the mutation pre-existed in early agriculturalists.

Or the mutation pre-existed in non-agriculturalists.

Daryl said...

I don't think southern europe ever did lighten up.

Google Man said...

"But when farming spread in the past 6000 years, he argued, Europeans had fewer sources of vitamin D in their food and needed to absorb more sunlight to produce the vitamin in their skin."

This doesn't make sense! Why would Scandinavians need to absorb more vitamin D, when they could consume lots of milk due to their lactose tolerance? Even Germans of Caesar's time were no passionate agriculturalists, but lived on meat and milk products! Why would the genetic pressure for light skin manifested most just in people, who needed it least???

dienekesp said...

Selection for lactose tolerance occurred after dairying came into the picture, it's not like it has existed in Scandinavia forever.

Deadman said...

I don't think southern europe ever did lighten up.
Considering that farming initially spread from there in the neolithic, they did lighten up in some measure.

At least compared to the majority of populations who did not move to Europe, North or South.

Richard Sharpe said...


Selection for lactose tolerance occurred after dairying came into the picture, it's not like it has existed in Scandinavia forever.


But selection cannot create things out of whole cloth.

There had to be enough variance for it to work with in the first place.

Those who did not have some lactose tolerance later than 7 or 8 contributed fewer and fewer genes to future generations as time went by.

Chris said...

i think that daryl was trying to be sarcastic...or am i wrong?

Daryl said...

No I'm not. Sorry if I came off the wrong way here I think depigmented caucasoids exist more outside of the med area.

miz RAND BLOWTON said...

I just don't get it.Were the other races ever a different color-why is it just the Whites that are "oddly colored"? And what about other physical differences in appearance and behaviorial personality(Whites don't rap like Blacks-maybe they could if they didn't eat dairy and cow brains and spinal cords-it's all dietary,you know).You are what you eat! ?(I don't eat that,but I'm not too lite or I'm a different sort of lite like Mediterranean

miz RAND BLOWTON said...

It's true,most hot,sunny countries don't have pale,white,inhabitants.The whitest people live in the greyest countries like Britain,Germany.With the exception of the Arabs who live in the hot desert, but most of them are stark white,or that's how they look ,but do they have the geneSLC24A5? Or which gene makes them White "looking"? But they don't like whiteEuropeann people,so white people shouldn't be deceived by their ghostly color,to assume they are in their corner.

miz RAND BLOWTON said...

If our world cares so much about color,then why not care more about race,and ethnicity,and citizenship,and breeding instead of making a big swirl of a slop out of everybody? Maybe no freak should have black skin,and blue eyes,and red hair,with African white teeth,and fat Asian legs,with you coice of butt,flat or fat.I mean-exactly how would they fit in?

terryt said...

Miz rand blowton wrote: "The whitest people live in the greyest countries like Britain,Germany". And I'd add, "especially around the Baltic".

Strange how white-skinned people are concentrated in the region where the natural vegetation is temperate deciduous woodland, where many other creatures are also white in winter. I'd be very surprised if this association ultimately turns out to be merely a coincidence.

miz RAND BLOWTON said...

Back in 2008 when I mentioned White people I did forget to add the Baltic and or slavik Areas-I guess I don't think about them too much since I never see them or hear about them.Basically all white people are similar White colors to sum it up.