Scientists sniff out gene for nose shape inherited from Neanderthals

The shape of some peoples’ noses is influenced by genetic material humans inherited from the Neanderthals, a study has found. Located in a genome region known as ATF3, this material — found in many people with Native American or East Asian ancestry — leads to a taller nose. The study is the second to find that our faces are shaped by DNA from archaic humans — with a 2021 paper reporting that we have inherited a gene that influences lip shape from the Denisovans.

The study was undertaken by human geneticist Professor Andrés Ruiz-Linares and statistical geneticist Dr Kaustubh Adhikari of University College London (UCK) and their colleagues.

Dr Adhikari said: “In the last 15 years, since the Neanderthal genome has been sequenced, we have been able to learn that our own ancestors apparently interbred with Neanderthals, leaving us with little bits of their DNA.

“Here, we find that some DNA inherited from Neanderthals influences the shape of our faces.

“This could have been helpful to our ancestors, as it has been passed down for thousands of generations.”

In their investigation, the researchers collected and analysed DNA samples from and facial photographs of more than 6,000 individuals from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru.

The study cohort group contained individuals of mixed European, Native American and African ancestry,

All the subjects had volunteered to participate in the Consortium for the Analysis of the Diversity and Evolution of Latin America (CANDELA) study into the biological diversity of Latin Americans and its social context. 

Prof. Ruiz-Linares said: “Most genetic studies of human diversity have investigated the genes of Europeans.

“Our study’s diverse sample of Latin American participants broadens the reach of genetic study findings, helping us to better understand the genetics of all humans.”

The team identified 33 genome regions that appear to be associated with face shape.

Of these, they were also able to find 26 in genomic data from other ethnicities from participants in east Asia, Europe and Africa.

In one genome region — ATF3 — many people of Native American or east Asian ancestry were found to carry genetic material, inherited from Neanderthals, that increases nasal height.

It appears that this region was the subject to pressures from natural selection, suggesting that having a tall nose once conferred an advantage, perhaps as humans first migrated out of Africa and into cooler climates.

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Paper co-author Dr Qing Li of Fudan University in Shanghai, China, said: “It has long been speculated that the shape of our noses is determined by natural selection.

“As our noses can help us to regulate the temperature and humidity of the air we breathe in, different-shaped noses may be better suited to different climates that our ancestors lived in.

“The gene we have identified here may have been inherited from Neanderthals to help humans adapt to colder climates as our ancestors moved out of Africa.”

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Communications Biology.

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