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MPI EVA: Neanderthal gene variants and Covid-19

Neanderthal gene variants can both increase and reduce the risk of severe Covid-19 courses


Last year, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden discovered that we inherited the most important genetic risk factor for severe disease Covid-19 from Neanderthals. Now the same researchers describe that Neanderthals contributed not only harmful but also protective variants to our genome.

Some people become seriously ill when they contract the Sars-CoV-2 virus, while others have only mild or no symptoms. In addition to risk factors such as advanced age and diabetes, there are also certain gene variants that make people more or less susceptible to a severe course of Covid-19 do. The most important genetic risk factor is located in the human genome on chromosome 3 and dramatically increases the risk of having to be artificially ventilated or even dying. Last year, Hugo Zeberg and Svante Pääbo from Karolinska Insitutet in Sweden and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology discovered, that we inherited this risk variant from Neanderthals.

Now the two researchers show that the Neanderthals have inherited protective variants in addition to the harmful ones. In one article, they describe that a region on chromosome 12 that reduces the risk of becoming seriously ill when infected by about 20 percent originates from Neanderthals. The genes in this region are OAS and regulate the activity of an enzyme that degrades viral genomes, and the Neanderthal variant of the enzyme appears to be more efficient at this. "This shows that our Neanderthal heritage is a double-edged sword. It gave us variants for which we can both thank and curse the Neanderthals,” says Hugo Zeberg.

The study also shows that the protective Neanderthal variant has continued to assert itself since the last Ice Age, with about half of all people outside of Africa now carrying it in their genome. “It is striking that this Neanderthal variant has become established in many parts of the world. It may have been useful not only in the current pandemic, but also in the past,” says Svante Pääbo. “It is also striking that two genetic variants that we inherited from Neanderthals are associated with such opposite effects on the course of Covid-19. The immune system of the Neanderthals obviously still influences us today – both positively and negatively.”


Source: Press release Max Planck Society from February 16.02.2021, XNUMX

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