The architecture of skin color variation in Africa

Baby of hunter-gatherers in Southern Africa

Very interesting abstract at the ASHG meeting of a plenary presentation,Novel loci associated with skin pigmentation identified in African populations. This is clearly the work that one of the comments on this weblog alluded to last summer during SMBE. There I was talking about the likely introduction of the derived SLC24A5 variant to the Khoisan peoples and its positive selection in peoples in southern Africa.

Below is the abstract in full. Those who follow the literature on this see the usual suspects in relation to genes, but also new ones:

Despite the wide range of variation in skin pigmentation in Africans, little is known about its genetic basis. To investigate this question we performed a GWAS on pigmentation in 1,593 Africans from populations in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Botswana. We identify significantly associated loci in or near SLC24A5MFSD12TMEM138…OCA2 and HERC2. Allele frequencies at these loci in global populations are strongly correlated with UV exposure. At SLC24A5 we find that a non-synonymous mutation associated with depigmentation in non-Africans was introduced into East Africa by gene flow, and subsequently rose to high frequency. At MFSD12, we identify novel variants that are strongly correlated with dark pigmentation in populations with Nilo-Saharan ancestry. Functional assays reveal that MFSD12 codes for a lysosomal protein that influences pigmentation in cultured melanocytes, zebrafish and mice. CRISPR knockouts of murine Mfsd12 display reduced pheomelanin pigmentation similar to the grizzled mouse mutant (gr/gr). Exome sequencing of gr/gr mice identified a 9 bp in-frame deletion in exon two of Mfsd12. Thus, using human GWAS data we were able to map a classic mouse pigmentation mutant. At TMEM138…we identify mutations in melanocyte-specific regulatory regions associated with expression of UV response genes. Variants associated with light pigmentation at this locus show evidence of a selective sweep in Eurasians. At OCA2 and HERC2 we identify novel variants associated with pigmentation and at OCA2, the oculocutaneous albinism II gene, we find evidence for balancing selection maintaining alleles associated with both light and dark skin pigmentation. We observe at all loci that variants associated with dark pigmentation in African populations are identical by descent in southern Asian and Australo-Melanesian populations and did not arise due to convergent evolution. Further, the alleles associated with skin pigmentation at all loci but SLC24A5 are ancient, predating the origin of modern humans. The ancestral alleles at the majority of predicted causal SNPs are associated with light skin, raising the possibility that the ancestors of modern humans could have had relatively light skin color, as is observed in the San population today. This study sheds new light on the evolutionary history of pigmentation in humans.

Much of this is not surprising. Looking at patterns of variation around pigmentation loci researchers suggested years ago that Melanesians and Africans exhibited evidence of similarity and functional constraint. That is, the dark skin alleles date back to Africa and did not deviate from their state due to selection pressures. In contrast, light skin alleles in places like eastern and western Eurasia are quite different.

Nyakim Gatwech

This abstract also confirms something I said in a comment on the same thread, that Nilotic peoples are the ones likely to have been subject to selection for dark skin in the last 10,000 years. You see above that variants on MFSD12 are correlated with dark complexion. In particular, in Nilo-Saharan groups. The model Nyakim Gatwech is of South Sudanese nationality and has a social media account famous for spotlighting her dark skin. In comparison to the Gatwech and the San Bushman child above are so different in color that I think it would be clear these two individuals come from very distinct populations.

The fascinating element of this abstract is the finding that most of the alleles which are correlated with lighter skin are very ancient and that they are the ancestral alleles more often than the derived! We’ll have to wait until the paper comes out. My assumption is that after the presentation Science will put it on their website. But until then here are some comments:

  • There is obviously a bias in the studies of pigmentation toward those which highlight European variability.
  • The theory of balancing selection makes sense to me because ancient DNA is showing OCA2 “blue eye” alleles which are not ancestral in places outside of Western Europe. And in East Asia there their own variants.
  • Lots of variance in pigmentation not accounted for in mixed populations (again, lots of the early genomic studies focused on populations which were highly diverged and had nearly fixed differences). Presumably, African research will pick a lot of this up.
  • This also should make us skeptical of the idea that Western Europeans were necessarily very dark skinned, as now we know that human pigmentation architecture is complex enough that sampling modern populations expand our understanding a great deal.
  • Finally, it’s long been assumed that at some stage early on humans were light skinned on most of their body because we had fur. When we lost our fur is when we would need to have developed dark skin. This abstract is not clear at how far long ago light and dark alleles coalesce to common ancestors.

7 thoughts on “The architecture of skin color variation in Africa

  1. Blue eyes in Africa and Oceania, where no white man has trod, are known to science and perhaps even more to photographers. Waardenburg Syndrome.

    It is also tragically correlated with deafness; not a trait one wants for the next generation.

  2. Is there any evidence regarding when we lost our fur?

    I would expect earlier in the genus homo than homo sapiens, and obviously post-Chimpanzee divergence, but that leaves a lot of wiggle room.

  3. I’m also very curious to know when human ancestors lost their fur, and whether this was a very gradual process over a long time span or not. Not just idle curiosity, it could have some explanatory power.

    My understanding is that we didn’t lose our fur, exactly – modern humans have more body hair follicles than chimpanzees, if I recall correctly, but the nature of most of the body hair changed.

  4. Skin color is interesting, but I would really like to know more about hair form. Light and dark skin are found both inside and outside of Africa, but hair form seems to sharply mark the OOA event, with tightly curled hair being universal among Sub-Saharan Africans and almost unknown in other populations (the closest being the Melanesians, and even that doesn’t really look the same).

    It seems to me that this has to be telling us something interesting, but I haven’t seen much talk about it. Are we anywhere near understanding what is going on here?

  5. -jb

    Discounting recent admixture with East/Southeast Asians, virtually every Austro-Melenesian population has kinky hair, from the Andaman Islanders to Papuans to the various “negrito” tribes of Southeast Asia. Aboriginal Australians are the major exception, and probably developed wavy hair independently of Eurasians. My expectation is that straighter hair developed largely independently in East and West Eurasians, although given there was post-out-of-Africa gene flow between East and West Eurasia to some extent, the wavy hair found in East Asians who lack EDAR may have a common origin with West Eurasian hair texture.

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