This project addresses fundamental questions about the underlying genetics and evolutionary history of lactase persistence (LP), and the dynamics of the associated gut microbiome, in milk-dependent pastoralist populations. The findings of this study will work synergistically with previously collected archaeological data to advance the understanding of human population history. Moreover, the project will provide a more nuanced understanding of the factors that govern the diversity and relative abundance of host-associated microbiomes. In addition, the research facilitates the training of minority graduate students in the investigators’ research laboratories, enhancing their competitiveness and success in the STEM workforce. To further expand the impact of this research, a small subset of the collected genomic and phenotypic data will be analyzed in the investigators’ undergraduate courses at Howard University, introducing a greater cross-section of students to genetics, evolution, and computational methods through project-based activities. And beyond the classroom, this project will provide new opportunities for faculty with different scientific backgrounds (e.g. biological anthropology and microbiology) to explore research paths that do not traditionally fit into a single discipline.

The investigators will collect genomic and phenotypic data in pastoralist populations, an understudied population. These data will be analyzed to: (1) identify novel LP-associated alleles and their possible interactions; (2) infer the evolutionary history of known and novel LP-associated loci; and (3) investigate the influence of host genetics and environment on gut microbial communities. Molecular data have provided some insights into the evolution of LP in humans, but thus far these studies have focused on specific well-studied populations This study provides information on additional populations thereby contributing to the genetic architecture and evolution of this uniquely human trait. With increased access to genome-wide and phenotypic data together with advances in computational methods, researchers are now able to examine new hypotheses about the genetic and microevolutionary factors that have influenced LP, as well as hypotheses about the genetic and environmental variables that have shaped the gut microbiome assemblage in milk-dependent populations. This project is jointly supported by the SBE-BCS Biological Anthropology Program and the SBE Office of Multidisciplinary Activities.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Rebecca Ferrell
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Howard University
United States
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