Where do humans come from and what does the future hold for humankind? These are two of the most intriguing questions in science. In order to find answers to these questions, scientists have turned to ancient fossils and tried to extract genetic information from them. Qiaomei Fu, a Professor at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is a leading scientist in this field and has contributed tremendously to exploring the genetic roots of humankind.
Fu co-developed nuclear DNA capture technology, with Matthias Meyer from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI EVA), that successfully isolated 0.03% of human DNA from bacterial DNA in an ancient human fossil found in a Tianyuan cave – a feat which was previously considered "impossible". She was the first to sequence nuclear DNA from an early modern human. Her work clarified the migration of early modern humans into Asia. Furthermore, she aided in developing a new generation of ancient DNA fragment extraction technology, which has been used to successfully extract ancient DNA from non-frozen sedimentary layers dating back 400,000 years. In comparison to earlier scientific research, this finding expanded the study of ancient human genetic history by another 300,000 years.
You may wonder how studying the DNA of ancient humans benefits us today. Mutations in our genomes can have complex histories leading to their prevalence in human populations today. For instance, Type II diabetes tends to occur more often in East Asians than in Europeans. This is related to genetic mutations that have originated in Neanderthals. By studying the genetic history of mutations associated with Type II diabetes in ancient humans, scientists will have a better understanding of this disease.
Although we now have quite detailed genetic information about modern humans in Europe, we have little information about contemporary humans in Asia during the same time period. Fu’s work therefore fills an important gap and is likely to yield fascinating and important insights into human history.