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.

Selection for pigmentation in Khoisan?

In the recent paper, Reconstructing Prehistoric African Population Structure, there was a section natural selection. Since my post on the paper was already very long I didn’t address this dynamic.

But now I want to highlight this section:

The functional category that displays the most extreme allele frequency differentiation between present day San and ancient southern Africans is ‘‘response to radiation’’ (Z = 3.3 compared to the genome-wide average). To control for the possibility that genes in this category show an inflated allele frequency differentiation in general, we computed the same statistic for the Mbuti central African rainforest hunter-gatherer group but found no evidence for selection affecting the response to radiation category.

We speculate that the signal for selection in the response to radiation category in the San could be due to exposure to sunlight associated with the life of the Khomani and Juj’hoan North people in the Kalahari Basin, which has become a refuge for hunter-gatherer populations in the last millenia due to encroachment by pastoralist and agriculturalist groups.

I’m a bit puzzled here, because the implication seems to be that the San populations are darker than they were in the past. And yet earlier this summer I saw a talk which strongly suggested that there was a selection in modern Bushman populations for the derived variant of SLC24A5, presumably introduced through admixture from East African populations with Eurasian admixture.

In comparison to their neighbors the San are quite light-skinned, so it’s a reasonable supposition that they have been subject to natural selection recently. The Hadza, in contrast, seem to have the same complexion as their Bantu neighbors.

SLC24A5 is very important, but we don’t know why


The golden of pigmentation genetics started in 2005 with SLC24A5, a putative cation exchanger, affects pigmentation in zebrafish and humans. Prior to that pigmentation genetics was really to a great extent coat color genetics, done in mice and other organisms which have a lot of pelage variation.

Of course there was work on humans, mostly related to melanocortin 1. But more interesting were classical pedigree studies which indicated that the number of loci controlling variation in pigmentation was not that high. This, it was a mildly polygenic trait insofar as some large effect quantitative trait loci could be discerned in the inheritance patterns.

From The Genetics of Human Populations, written in the 1960s, but still useful today because of its comprehensive survey of the classical period:

Depending on what study samples you use variance on a locus of SLC24A5 explains less than 10% or more than 30% of the total variance. But it is probably the biggest effect locus on the whole in human populations when you pool them altogether (obviously it explains little variance in Africans or eastern non-Africans since it is homozygous ancestral by and large in both groups).

One aspect of the derived SNP in this locus is that it seems to be under strong selection. In a European 1000 Genomes sample there are 1003 SNPs of the derived variant, and 3 of the ancestral. Curiously this allele was absent in Western European Mesolithic European hunter-gatherers, though it was present in hunter-gatherers on the northern and eastern fringes of the continent. It was also present in Caucasian hunter-gatherers and farmers from the Middle East who migrated to Europe. It seems very likely that these sorts of high frequencies are due to selection in Europe.

The variant is also present in appreciably frequencies in many South Asian populations, and there seems to have been in situ selection there too, as well as the Near East. In Ethiopia it also seems to be under selection.

It could be something due to radiation…but the Near East and South Asia are quite high intensity in that regard. As are the highlands of Ethiopia. About seven years ago I suggested that rather that UV radiation as such the depigmentation that has occurred across the Holocene might be due to agriculture and changes in diet.

But a new result from southern Africa presented at the SMBE meeting this year suggests that this can not be a comprehensive answer. Meng Lin in Brenna Henn’s lab uses a broad panel of KhoeSan populations to find that the derived allele on SLC24A5 reaches ~40% frequency. Probably a high fraction of West Eurasian admixture in these groups is around ~10% being generous. Where did this allele come from? The results from Joe Pickrell a few years back are sufficient to explain: there was a movement of pastoralists with distant West Eurasian ancestry who brought cattle to southern Africa, and so resulted in the ethnogenesis of groups such as the Nama people (there is also Y chromosomal work by Henn on this).

Sad human with two derived alleles of SNP of interest

Lin reports that the haplotype around SLC24A5 is the same one as in Western Eurasia. Iain Mathieson (who is now at Penn if anyone is looking for something to do in grad school or a post-doc) has told me that the haplotype in the Motala Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and in the hunter-gatherers from the Caucasus are the same. It seems that this haplotype was widespread early in the Holocene. Curiously, the Motala hunter-gatherers also carry the East Asian haplotype around their derived EDAR variant.

I don’t know what to make of this. My intuition is that if a haplotype like this is so widespread nearly ~10,000 years ago recombination would have broken it apart into smaller pieces so that haplotype structure would be easier to discern. As it is that doesn’t seem to be the case.

And we also don’t know what’s going on withSLC24A5. Obviously it impacts skin color. It has been shown to do so in admixed populations. But it is hard to believe that that is the sole target of natural selection here.