Molecular and Cultural Evolution Lab
Why are Humans Unique?
The distribution of genetic and cultural variation in human populations is shaped by demographic history, natural selection, mutation (or innovation) and random factors (drift).
Understanding how these different processes interact is key to understanding our hidden past and permits, in many cases, detailed inferences on the specific origins and spread of populations, phenotypically / medically relevant mutations and culturally inherited skills.
Current Research Projects
Dairying, diseases and the evolution of lactase persistence in Europe
Listen to Professor Mark Thomas speak about the paper on the Nature Podcast
In European and many African, Middle Eastern and southern Asian populations, lactase persistence (LP) is the most strongly selected monogenic trait to have evolved over the past 10,000 years1. Although the selection of LP and the consumption of prehistoric milk must be linked, considerable uncertainty remains concerning their spatiotemporal configuration and specific interactions
We propose that lactase non-persistent individuals consumed milk when it became available but, under conditions of famine and/or increased pathogen exposure, this was disadvantageous, driving LP selection in prehistoric Europe. Comparison of model likelihoods indicates that population fluctuations, settlement density and wild animal exploitation—proxies for these drivers—provide better explanations of LP selection than the extent of milk exploitation. These findings offer new perspectives on prehistoric milk exploitation and LP evolution.
ERC EU Synergy grant
Synergy projects represent the top level of European Research Council funding and bring together top researchers from different fields who join forces to create new, innovative researchers that could not have been achieved individually.
In the project “From correlations to explanations: towards a new European prehistory (COREX)” geneticists and archaeologists from University College London (led by Mark Thomas and Stephen Shennan) join forces with archaeologists from Gothenburg and geneticists from Copenhagen.
The project will combine prehistoric human genomic, archaeological, environmental, stable isotope and climate data to better understand the processes that shaped our biological and cultural past from the time of the first farmers to the Iron Age (between 6000 to 500 BC).
Evolutionary Adaptation to Dietary Change
Dietary change has been linked to many aspects of human evolution over the last 3 million years, including tool use, brain size increase, aerobic capacity and gut biology. Understanding past dietary changes, and how we have adapted both culturally and biologically to them, is key to understanding our evolution and place in nature. Furthermore, determining the extent to which we have failed to adapt to dietary changes over the last 10,000 years is key to understanding our vulnerability to a number of complex and chronic 'diseases of modernity'. Using both genetic, archaeological and anthropological data, in combination with computational modelling and statistical techniques, we aim to these adaptations and vulnerabilities to past dietary change.
Why do we like Food that is Bad for Us?
How different are modern diets from those of our ancestors? Many differences have been postulated but very few studies are quantative or have been scientifically validated.
Using archaeological and ethnographic data, we seek to quantify these differences, and by doing so, better understand the evolution of our dietary preferences, including why we often seek foods that are unhealthy.
Some Recent Projects
Food Income and the Evolution of Forager Mobility
Forager mobility tends to be high, although ethnographic studies indicate ecological factors such as resource abundance and reliability, population density and effective temperature influence the cost-to-benefit assessment of movement decisions.
We investigated the evolution of mobility using an agent-based and spatially explicit cultural evolutionary model that considers the feedback between foragers and their environment.
Identification of Richard III
In 2013, researchers announced that the body of King Richard III had been found underneath a car park in Leicester. The body took five months to discover and consisted of some of the most intensive archaeological and scientific analyses ever conducted.
The MACE Lab designed a bespoke Bayesian Statistical Method which provided overwhelming support - to a 99.75% probability - that the remains were indeed those of King Richard III.
Face of First Brit Revealed
The genome of 'Cheddar Man', Britain's oldest nearly complete skeleton at 10,000 years old, was revealed for the first time and with unprecedented accuracy by MACE lab and Natural History Museum researchers.
In one of their most challenging human DNA projects to date - no British individual this old has ever had their genome sequenced - the Natural History Museum's ancient DNA lab's Professor Ian Barnes and Dr Selina Brace carried out the first ever full reading of Cheddar Man's DNA. Professor Mark Thomas and Dr Yoan Diekmann (both MACE lab) then analysed Cheddar Man's DNA sequences to establish aspects of his appearance.
Using this information, together with the skull of Cheddar Man, Adrie and Alfons Kennis then created this reconstruction.
From DNA evidence in crime cases to population-wide studies of genetic disease, immensely-powerful DNA technology is transforming our world. Understandably, members of the public tend to respect and trust scientific professionals who can wield these powerful new tools.
We all love stories about our past, and for many it's too tempting to cut corners, draw inferences based on only superficial analysis of the data, and ignore the uncertainty. A public unaware of the distinctions may be misled into thinking that DNA-based inferences about the past are as reliable as a DNA profile match. Usually they are not.
We have created these web pages to help interested non-scientists to be skeptical consumers of genetic ancestry information, and to try to distinguish genetic ancestry from genetic astrology
The UCL Ancient DNA facility
The UCL Ancient DNA facility was built in 2012 under the direction of Prof. Mark Thomas.
It is located in UCL's Institute of Archaeology but is shared among the following stakeholders:
The lab provides a high-containment ultra-clean environment for the extraction and first-stage processing of nucleic acids from archaeological and forensic materials, and is positioned well-away from any post-PCR molecular biology activities.
Downloadable files are available which contain software developed in the Molecular and Cultural Evolution lab or at The Centre for Genetic Anthropology.
Programs were developed on a PC or Mac but in many cases can be implemented on other platforms as well.
Most zip files contain a Word doc help file.
Lactase persistence (LP) is the ability of adult humans to digest the milk sugar lactose.
This is an online database resource presenting the full LP phenotypic and LP-associated allele frequency data, including worldwide interpolated LP frequencies and genotype-phenotype correlation maps.
We encourage researchers to send us new LP phenotype/genotype data to Professor Dallas Swallow in an Excel format.
Over the years, the Molecular and Cultural Evolution Lab has often been called upon by the media to provide commentaries or to discuss their latest research.
This coverage has ranged from traditional media such as: TV, newspapers, radio, webcasts, podcasts and other forms of online media.
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