According to a study, the genetic legacy of the long-extinct Neanderthals can protect people from a severe course of Covid-19: Neanderthals have left gene variants in the human genome that have the risk of becoming seriously ill with a Sars-CoV-2 infection reduce by a good 20 percent.
In an earlier work, Hugo Zeberg and Svante Pääbo from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig found that other Neanderthal gene variants significantly increase the risk of having to be ventilated or dying in the course of an infection. “It shows that our Neanderthal heritage is a double-edged sword. It has given us variants for which we can both thank the Neanderthals and curse them, ”explained Zeberg.
Traces in the genome
The Neanderthals became extinct around 40,000 years ago – but they did not completely disappear. Since they had also fathered children with modern humans in the last millennia of their existence, traces of their genetic make-up are still detectable in our genome. The protective Neanderthal gene variant that has now been discovered is located in an area on chromosome 12. The genes there form enzymes that are involved in the breakdown of virus genetic material – and the Neanderthal variant seems to be particularly effective in this, the researchers report in the specialist journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “.
The researchers also showed that the protective variant has continued to gain acceptance since the last Ice Age and that it can now be found in the genome of around half of all people outside Africa. “It is noticeable that this Neanderthal variant has established itself in many parts of the world. It may have been useful not only in the current pandemic, but also in the past, ”said Pääbo.