Immunogenetics as a tool in anthropological studies


Professor A. Sanchez-Mazas, Laboratory of Anthropology, Genetics and peopling history (AGP), Anthropology Unit, Department of Genetics and Evolution, University of Geneva, 12 rue Gustave-Revilliod, CH-1227 Geneva, Switzerland. Email: alicia.sanchez-mazas@unige.chSenior author: Professor Erik Thorsby,email:


The genes coding for the main molecules involved in the human immune system – immunoglobulins, human leucocyte antigen (HLA) molecules and killer-cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIR) – exhibit a very high level of polymorphism that reveals remarkable frequency variation in human populations. ‘Genetic marker’ (GM) allotypes located in the constant domains of IgG antibodies have been studied for over 40 years through serological typing, leading to the identification of a variety of GM haplotypes whose frequencies vary sharply from one geographic region to another. An impressive diversity of HLA alleles, which results in amino acid substitutions located in the antigen-binding region of HLA molecules, also varies greatly among populations. The KIR differ between individuals according to both gene content and allelic variation, and also display considerable population diversity. Whereas the molecular evolution of these polymorphisms has most likely been subject to natural selection, principally driven by host–pathogen interactions, their patterns of genetic variation worldwide show significant signals of human geographic expansion, demographic history and cultural diversification. As current developments in population genetic analysis and computer simulation improve our ability to discriminate among different – either stochastic or deterministic – forces acting on the genetic evolution of human populations, the study of these systems shows great promise for investigating both the peopling history of modern humans in the time since their common origin and human adaptation to past environmental (e.g. pathogenic) changes. Therefore, in addition to mitochondrial DNA, Y-chromosome, microsatellites, single nucleotide polymorphisms and other markers, immunogenetic polymorphisms represent essential and complementary tools for anthropological studies.