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DNA holds the story of our ancestry – how we’re related to the familiar faces at family reunions as well as more ancient affairs: how we’re related to our closest nonhuman relatives, chimpanzees; how mated with Neanderthals; and how people migrated out of Africa, adapting to new environments and lifestyles along the way.
In a single human genome, there are about 70 nucleotide changes per generation – minuscule in a genome made up of six billion letters.
But in aggregate, over many generations, these changes lead to substantial evolutionary variation.
Molecular clocks are becoming more sophisticated, thanks to improved DNA sequencing, analytical tools and a better understanding of the biological processes behind genetic changes.
By applying these methods to the ever-growing database of DNA from diverse populations (both present-day and ancient), geneticists are helping to build a more refined timeline of human evolution.
These changes accrue like the ticks on a stopwatch, providing a “molecular clock.” By comparing DNA sequences, geneticists can not only reconstruct relationships between different populations or species but also infer evolutionary history over deep timescales.And our DNA also holds clues about the timing of these key events in human evolution.When scientists say that modern humans emerged in Africa about 200,000 years ago and began their global spread about 60,000 years ago, how do they come up with those dates?During recombination, the corresponding (homologous) chromosomes line up and exchange segments, so the genome you pass on to your children is a mosaic of your parents’ DNA.In humans, about 36 recombination events occur per generation, one or two per chromosome.As this happens every generation, segments inherited from a particular individual get broken into smaller and smaller chunks.Based on the size of these chunks and frequency of crossovers, geneticists can estimate how long ago that individual was your ancestor.Then, knowing the rate of these changes, they can calculate the time needed to accumulate that many differences.This tells them how long it’s been since the individuals shared ancestors.These changes will be inherited by future generations if they occur in eggs, sperm or their cellular precursors (the germline).Most result from mistakes when DNA copies itself during cell division, although other types of mutations occur spontaneously or from exposure to hazards like radiation and chemicals.