University of Arizona geneticists have discovered the oldest known genetic branch of the human Y chromosome – the hereditary factor determining male sex. The new divergent lineage, which was found in an individual who submitted his DNA to Family Tree DNA, a company specializing in DNA analysis to trace family roots, branched from the Y chromosome tree before the first appearance of anatomically modern humans in the fossil record.
"Our analysis indicates this lineage diverged from previously known Y chromosomes about 300,000 ago, a time when anatomically modern humans had not yet evolved," said Michael Hammer, an associate professor in the University of Arizona's department of ecology and evolutionary biology and a research scientist at the UA's Arizona Research Labs. "This pushes back the time the last common Y chromosome ancestor lived by almost 70 percent."
Unlike the other human chromosomes, the majority of the Y chromosome does not exchange genetic material with other chromosomes, which makes it simpler to trace ancestral relationships among contemporary lineages. If two Y chromosomes carry the same mutation, it is because they share a common paternal ancestor at some point in the past. The more mutations that differ between two Y chromosomes the farther back in time the common ancestor lived.
Originally, a DNA sample obtained from an African American living in South Carolina was submitted to the National Geographic Genographic Project. When none of the genetic markers used to assign lineages to known Y chromosome groupings were found, the DNA sample was sent to Family Tree DNA for sequencing. Fernando Mendez, a postdoctoral researcher in Hammer's lab, led the effort to analyze the DNA sequence, which included more than 240,000 base pairs of the Y chromosome.