Researchers Studied 25 Ancient Skulls To Discover How Iceland's Genetics Evolved Over 1,100 Years


The people of Iceland have a unique culture and history, and now a new study suggests that their genetics might also be unique in many ways.

What Was Discovered In Iceland?

Iceland was settled by the Vikings and their slaves roughly 1,100 years ago. A new study has revealed how the genetic makeup of Iceland's population has evolved over that time.

The study was published on May 31 in the journal Science.

At the beginning of Iceland's history, 57 percent of the population had Norse ancestry. Today, 70 percent of the population can trace its genetic roots back to the Norse people. The genetic makeup of Iceland used to include more connections to Scandinavia and the British Isles. There are over 334,000 people who live in Iceland today.

Researchers cite the reproductive success of the Gaelic slaves and immigration from Denmark as contributing factors to the shift in genetics.

"This is a fascinating example of how a population is shaped by its environment, in this case the harsh and marginal conditions of medieval Iceland, " said Kári Stefánsson, a study coauthor. "It is also another demonstration of how our small but well characterized population can continue to make important contributions to understanding the fundamental genetic and evolutionary processes that shape our species."

How Did They Discover This Genetic Shift?

To find this genetic change, researchers sequenced the genomes found in the teeth of 25 ancient skulls at Icelandic burial sites. Using radiocarbon dating, the researchers found that the skulls belonged to the first settlers of Iceland.

They compared the genomes from the ancient Icelandic people to modern Icelandic citizens to discover the strong Norse connection. There was a greater ancestral mix among the early settlers compared to today's citizens who have more genes form Norse ancestry. In the course of 1,100 years, this represents a dramatic genetic change.

A computer simulation was implemented to determine the changing genetics over time. The researchers spotted a genetic drift, which is often seen in animals. This means that the isolation of the population of Iceland contributed to this genetic situation.

Future Implications Of This Study

Researchers hope that this study will help shed some light on the importance of searching for genotype and phenotype as part of a way to diagnose and prevent diseases. This particular study includes the discovery of an ancient person with Klinefelter syndrome.

"Iceland is big enough for the diseases that affect Europeans to be represented, yet small enough to easily carry out genetic studies which lead to discovering the roots of these complex pathologies," said CSIC researcher Carles Lalueza-Fox.

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