by Ricardo Kanitz, based on the paper by Hernandez et al. published in Science (2011).
One of the main topics in evolution is – as it has always been – human evolution. Many new methods are applied first to humans; other methods, which are not applied there, often come to humans at some point anyway. This is particularly true in the field of genomics and it is no surprise since we are talking about our own species’ evolution. The study commented here addresses an interesting general question in the subject. How selection shaped (if at all) our genomes?
As it follows, they proposed a scenario of background purifying selection to explain the observed pattern. In Figure 3B above, they showed the fit of simulations with background selection (purple, green and orange) with the observations (dark blue, light blue and red). Such a fit appears to be very good and they conclude that the pattern they observed is better explained by purifying selection (a.k.a. strict neutrality) than by recurrent positive selection.
Finally, given (1) the fact that the observations did not fit the predictions of their (rather extreme) selection model, and (2) that a neutral model was able to explain the observations, the general conclusion is that classic selective sweeps resulting from strong positive selection were quite rare in the recent human evolution.
Although it would be interesting to see how the results would look like with lower (and more realistic) values for ? and s, this study brings about the interesting discussion of the modus operandi of human adaptation. Classical examples based on phenotypes show that humans underwent recurrent adaptations when it comes to diet, immune response and skin pigmentation. The molecular mechanisms underlying these, however, might not be as simple as the “Classic Selective Sweeps”. Complex genetic architectures linking small effect polygenic variants, for example, may lead to soft sweeps; which do not leave the same sort of signature and can easily be missed in the background noise created by the potentially overwhelming neutral evolution. Therefore, there are still many unknown features related to recent human evolution – especially concerning non-neutral evolution – and the growing availability of data coupled with better analytical methods may bring new and possibly surprising results in the coming years of scientific investigation.