Interbreeding with archaic humans like Neanderthals endowed modern humans with key genes that contribute to our greatly improved immune system, according to a new research.

DNA inherited from Neanderthals and newly discovered hominids known as Denisovans contributed to key types of immune genes still present among populations in Europe, Asia and Oceania, states a study published in the journal Science. These gene variants must have helped humans survive while migrating throughout the world, according to researchers.

The cross-breeding wasn't just a random event that happened; it gave something useful to the gene pool of the modern human, said Stanford University's Peter Parham, senior author.

The new study looked at the origins of some HLA (human leucocyte antigen) class I genes and traced them back to our ancient relatives. (HLA) class I genes are responsible for making HLA proteins that help the immune system adapt to defend against new pathogens that could cause various infections, viruses and diseases. They found evidence that a variant of HLA called HLA-B*73 found in modern humans came from cross-breeding with Denisovans. Similarly, HLA gene types were found in the Neanderthal genome.


An exhibit of a neanderthal child looking at its reflection in the water is displayed in the new Neanderthal Museum in the northern town of Krapina February 25, 2010. The high-tech, multimedia museum, with exhibitions depicting the evolution from 'Big Bang' to present day, opens on February 27. REUTERS/Nikola Solic

According to the study, the prehistoric HLA genes have multiplied among modern humans and are seen in more than half of Eurasians today.

We are finding frequencies in Asia and Europe that are far greater than the whole genome estimates of archaic DNA in modern humans, which is 1 to 6 percent, said Parham.

Scientists believe that Europeans owe more than half their variants of one class of HLA gene to interbreeding with Neanderthals and Denisovans. Asians owe up to 80 percent, and Papua New Guineans up to 95 percent.

Ancient pre-human people, like the Neanderthals and Denisovans, apparently left Africa some 400,000 years ago and wandered through Europe and Asia until modern humans came to Eurasia from Africa around 85,000 years ago, and quickly replaced them, Parham said.

Modern humans overran the Neanderthals from Northern Europe to Spain and by 30,000 years ago, the Neanderthals were gone. Similarly, humans also overran the Denisovans in Siberia and they disappeared at about the same time. But some of their genes lived on in humans, Parham's team reported.

Since the Denisovans had been living in Europe and Asia for several hundred thousands of years, their genes had adapted to life in these regions. However, since the recent migrants from Africa did not have these genes, those who acquired them by mating got an advantage, added Parham. Those who stayed in Africa did not get the healthy immune system genes.