Pleistocene immunogenetics

We are using ancient DNA to understand the evolutionary dynamics of immune genes in woolly mammoths and look for signatures of selection, possibly indicating emergence of pathogens at the time that mammoth populations declined eventually leading to their extinction.

Project details
Duration: 06/2014 – 05/2018
Third-party funded: yes
Involved Department(s): Dept Wildlife Diseases
Leibniz-IZW Project Leader(s): Alex Greenwood (Dept Wildlife Diseases)
Leibniz-IZW Project Team: Gayle McEwen, John Galindo (all: Dept Wildlife Diseases)
Consortium Partner(s): University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (USA), McMasters University (Canada), Copenhagen Zoo (Denmark)
Current Funding Organisation: German Science Foundation (DFG)
Research Foci:
Understanding traits and evolutionary adaptations
Understanding wildlife health and disturbed homeostasis

Pathogens and host co-evolution can shape the genetic diversity of animal populations, particularly the immunogenetic loci. This dynamic has been intensively studied over both the short term within currently existing populations and over the long term by comparing different species where much of the intervening development of immunogenetic diversity can only be inferred. However, the middle ground, the changes over time over thousands of years within a species over its current and historical range has not been studied to date. Within this time period one would observe directly the diversity that is rapidly replaced versus diversity that persists both temporally and geographically. The current understanding of MHC and TLR diversity coupled with progress in the field of ancient DNA makes it possible to study this middle ground and gain a better understanding of current innate and adaptive immunogenetic diversity in extant species.

In this DFG funded project we are analysing data generated from woolly mammoths, modern elephants and both ancient and modern muskoxen to infer diversity and selection pressures on immune related genes on these taxa. Mammoths did not survive throughout the Holocene whereas muskoxen, a sympatric species did. The data collected on modern elephant immunogenetics should have relevance for conservation work on both captive and free-living elephants.

Selected Publications

coming soon

Header photo by shankar s. from Poona (pune), India, India - Fossilized remains of the Wooly Mammoth, CC BY 2.0,