Link to Pubmed [PMID] – 30827499
Am. J. Hum. Genet. 2019 Mar;104(3):553-561
The hemoglobin β sickle mutation is a textbook case in which natural selection maintains a deleterious mutation at high frequency in the human population. Homozygous individuals for this mutation develop sickle-cell disease, whereas heterozygotes benefit from higher protection against severe malaria. Because the overdominant β allele should be purged almost immediately from the population in the absence of malaria, the study of the evolutionary history of this iconic mutation can provide important information about the history of human exposure to malaria. Here, we sought to increase our understanding of the origins and time depth of the β mutation in populations with different lifestyles and ecologies, and we analyzed the diversity of HBB in 479 individuals from 13 populations of African farmers and rainforest hunter-gatherers. Using an approximate Bayesian computation method, we estimated the age of the β allele while explicitly accounting for population subdivision, past demography, and balancing selection. When the effects of balancing selection are taken into account, our analyses indicate a single emergence of β in the ancestors of present-day agriculturalist populations ∼22,000 years ago. Furthermore, we show that rainforest hunter-gatherers have more recently acquired the β mutation from the ancestors of agriculturalists through adaptive gene flow during the last ∼6,000 years. Together, our results provide evidence for a more ancient exposure to malarial pressures among the ancestors of agriculturalists than previously appreciated, and they suggest that rainforest hunter-gatherers have been increasingly exposed to malaria during the last millennia.