Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ancient wild horses help reveal past

An international team of researchers has used ancient DNA to produce compelling evidence that the lack of genetic diversity in modern stallions is the result of the domestication process.

Modern domestic horses show abundant genetic diversity within mitochondrial DNA, which  is inherited only from the female. In contrast there is practically no variation in the DNA sequence on the male-inherited Y-chromosome.

Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain this difference, but to be able to test them it is necessary to know about the degree of variation in the ancestral horse population. The only way to get this information is by studying ancient DNA.

The research team, which was led by Professor Michi Hofreiter from the University of York, UK, has carried out the first study on Y chromosomal DNA sequences from extinct ancient wild horses and found an abundance of diversity.

The results, which are published in Nature Communications, suggest the almost complete absence of genetic diversity in modern male horses is not based on properties intrinsic to wild horses, but on the domestication process itself.

Professor Hofreiter said: “Unlike modern female domestic horses where there is plenty of diversity, genetic diversity in male horses is practically zero.

“One hypothesis to explain this suggests modern horses have little Y chromosome diversity because the wild horses from which they were domesticated were also not diverse, due in part to the harem mating system in horses, implying skewed reproductive success of males. Our results reject this hypothesis as the Y chromosome diversity in ancient wild horses is high. Instead our results suggest that the lack of genetic diversity in modern horses is a direct consequence of the domestication process itself.”

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