Date Published: March 16, 2004
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Partial Text: Scientists searching for clues to our origins have long relied on studying fossils to piece together our evolutionary history. Now, with the tools of molecular genetics, they can reach beyond morphological evidence to retrieve traces of DNA preserved in the remnants of bone. And in these ancient DNA sequences, they’re finding bits and pieces of the evolutionary record. Over the course of evolution, changes in DNA sequences accumulate at a predictable rate. These mutations can reveal not only how closely related we are but also when evolutionary lineages diverged. Identifying both a typical range of genetic variation and rate of mutation for a given species or population, for example, can serve as a frame of reference for analyzing DNA sequences from other species or populations. Most molecular anthropologists use DNA found in mitochondria—intracellular structures that convert food into energy—to reconstruct human evolution. Distinct from nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) exists in the cytoplasm of a fertilized egg and is passed on only through the maternal lineage.