The Columbian Exchange as a source of adaptive introgression in human populations

Biol Direct. 2016 Apr 2;11(1):17. doi: 10.1186/s13062-016-0121-x.


Background: The term "Columbian Exchange" refers to the massive transfer of life between the Afro-Eurasian and American hemispheres that was precipitated by Columbus' voyage to the New World. The Columbian Exchange is widely appreciated by historians, social scientists and economists as a major turning point that had profound and lasting effects on the trajectory of human history and development.

Presentation of the hypothesis: I propose that the Columbian Exchange should also be appreciated by biologists for its role in the creation of novel human genomes that have been shaped by rapid adaptive evolution. Specifically, I hypothesize that the process of human genome evolution stimulated by the Columbian Exchange was based in part on selective sweeps of introgressed haplotypes from ancestral populations, many of which possessed pre-evolved adaptive utility based on regional-specific fitness and health effects.

Testing the hypothesis: Testing of this hypothesis will require comparative analysis of genome sequences from putative ancestral source populations, with genomes from modern admixed populations, in order to identify ancestry-specific introgressed haplotypes that exist at higher frequencies in admixed populations than can be expected by chance alone. Investigation of such ancestry-enriched genomic regions can be used to provide clues as to the functional roles of the genes therein and the selective forces that have acted to increase their frequency in the population.

Implications of the hypothesis: Critical interrogation of this hypothesis could serve to underscore the important role of introgression as a source of adaptive alleles and as a driver of evolutionary change, and it would highlight the role of admixture in facilitating rapid human evolution.

Keywords: Adaptive evolution; Allele; Columbian exchange; Genetic admixture; Haplotype; Human evolution; Introgression; Natural selection; Selective sweep.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alleles
  • Biological Evolution
  • Haplotypes / genetics
  • Humans
  • Selection, Genetic / genetics*