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Mircea Iliescu

Email: fmi20@cam.ac.uk


Research project: Genetic basis of skin pigmentation variation in Indian populations


The understanding of our origins and amazing diversity are the questions which drive my curiosity every day. As a biologist interested in the history of human populations, I work in the interdisciplinary space defined by the boundaries between genetics, evolution and anthropology.

Specifically, in the last few years I have been researching the genetics of human pigmentation diversity in India. As humans migrated across the world in the past 50 thousand years, they encountered a wealth of new environmental and social pressures to which they adapted through the evolution and selection of beneficial genetic variants. Skin pigmentation stands as a classic – yet still to be clearly understood – example of the evolution of diverse phenotypes through genetic mutations in response to novel situations. In the case of India, the remarkable skin colour diversity encountered throughout the subcontinent is most probably the result of the interplay between the unique genetic and social architecture of Indian populations during the prehistoric and historic migrations across South Asia. In this context, my research so far has focused on three lines of enquiry: first, to obtain a clearer picture of the landscape of human pigmentation diversity in India; secondly, to find genetic variants which have a major effect on skin colour variation in a large homogenous population of South India; thirdly, to characterise the geographic, linguistic and social patterns of these genes' presence among populations from all over India.

Finding answers to some of the above questions has led however to more fundamental questions on the evolution of a visible human feature in a coordinated response to the environment and to sexual selection. An immediate aim is therefore to collect more genetic and phenotype data, and to develop the statistical tools to address this. In the same time, new data from more parts of India should shed light on the genes affecting the missing component of pigmentation variation. More generally, I am looking to integrate population and functional genetics data with archaeological and ancient DNA evidence to shed light on the mechanisms by which functional human traits originate and diversify as they migrate through populations. On this line, I have a special interest in evolutionary medicine; here, I plan to conduct research on the influence of fast evolving pathogens – in tandem with different lifestyles and cultures – on past and current human evolution.

 

 

 


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