What Is a Neanderthal Gene and Why Is It Good for Pregnancy?

A recent study published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution found that women who have inherited a certain gene from early human Neanderthals may have inherited benefits that increase fertility and lower risk of miscarriage.

It turns out that Neanderthals – usually referred to as cavemen – may have donated several  beneficial genes to modern humans. Among the benefits may be a better immune system, better blood clotting, more height, ability to adapt to higher altitudes, and a stronger sense of smell. The pregnancy and fertility benefits are the latest discovery.

Who Were the Neanderthals?

Neanderthals lived from about 400,000 to 40,000 years ago. They really did live in caves and they survived for a few hundred thousand years during an ice age of extreme cold, so they had to be extremely strong and resilient. The common stereotype of the knuckle dragging caveman is not fair. Neanderthals made tools, clothing from animal hides, musical instruments, cave art, and jewelry.

Modern humans came out of Africa and existed along with Neanderthals for several thousands of years before Neanderthals disappeared from history. It was once thought that modern humans killed off the Neanderthals or that Neanderthals could not compete with modern human and became extinct.

In 1997, researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Germany were able to get DNA from Neanderthal bones. In 2010, the ability to sequence the entire DNA of the Neanderthals from their skeletal remains allowed scientists to start comparing their genes to ours. Researchers were surprised to find that many of us share about two percent of our genes with cavemen.

The new theory is that there was probably more loving than killing and competing between modern humans and Neanderthals. It is probable that Neanderthals got absorbed into the much larger group of  modern humans through intermating.

Neanderthals lived in Europe and Western Asia. If your ancestors came from that area, you may share at least one to two percent of your genes with the Neanderthals. If you are of pure African background, you probably do not have Neanderthal genes, since modern humans did not meet Neanderthals until they arrived in Europe and Asia.

Neanderthal DNA and Pregnancy

The study is from the Max Planck Institute, the same institute that first retrieved Neanderthal DNA. Researchers looked at DNA samples from close to 250,000 European women and were surprised to find that almost one-third of them had inherited a Neanderthal gene for a progesterone receptor. This is important because this receptor gene plays an important role in regulating menstrual cycles and pregnancy. Women who carry this receptor tend to have more babies, less bleeding in early pregnancy, and less miscarriages.

This gene would have helped Neanderthals survive under harsh conditions for over 400,000 years. The gene itself is a remarkable survivor, being about 10 times more common than other Neanderthal genes. Not all Neanderthal genes are so valuable. One gene gives you straighter hair and one reduces sneezing after eating dark chocolate.

Could You Have Neanderthal Genes?

Genetic testing companies like 23andMe can now test for Neanderthal genes along with the genes from your more recent ancestors. They can’t tell you if you have the beneficial progesterone receptor gene yet, but if you have some Neanderthal genes, you might have that one too. So far, it seems to be one of the most common of the Neanderthal surviving genes.

Christopher Iliades
Dr. Chris Iliades is a medical doctor with 20 years of experience in clinical medicine and clinical research. Chris has been a full time medical writer and journalist since 2004. His byline appears in over 1,000 articles online including EverydayHealth, The Clinical Advisor, and Healthgrades. He has also written for print media including Cruising World Magazine, MD News, and The Johns Hopkins Children's Center Magazine. Chris lives with his wife and close to his three children and four grandchildren in the Boston area.

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