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Human migration tracked in Stanford computer simulation

STANFORD, Calif. - Early humans migrating from Africa carried small genetic differences like so much flotsam in an ocean current. Today's studies give only a snapshot of where that genetic baggage came to rest without revealing the tides that brought it there. Now researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have devised a model for pinpointing where mutations first appeared, providing a new way to trace the migratory path of our earliest ancestors.

The study was led by Luca Cavalli-Sforza, PhD, emeritus professor of genetics, who has spent most of his career tracking the evolution of modern humans. Much of his current work involves following mutations in the Y chromosome, which is passed exclusively from father to son, as humans migrated from Africa and spread to the rest of the world during the past 50,000 years.

These mutations, most of which cause no physical change, tend to appear at a constant rate, providing a genetic timer. For example, if a population has 10 mutations after 50,000 years of evolution from the common ancestor in Africa, then the fifth mutation probably arose 25,000 years ago. But where was the population located at that time? Until now genetics hasn't had an answer.

"If we know the time when a mutation arose we know something. If we also knew the place we'd know almost everything," Cavalli-Sforza said.

With the help of senior application software developer Christopher Edmonds and statistician Anita Lillie, both researchers at Stanford, Cavalli-Sforza built a computer model to simulate how mutations spread in a migrating population. The results of this work are published in this week's online issue of Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

The group reduced the world's continents to a simple rectangular grid. They populated the first few squares with computerized human populations and gave those electronic villages realistic rates for population growth, migration an
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Contact: Amy Adams
amyadams@stanford.edu
650-723-3900
Stanford University Medical Center
21-Jan-2004


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