In 2003, a discovery in a deserted mining town in the Atacama region of Chile caused an international stir. A mummified skeleton had been found, and though human-like in appearance its fully formed skull was profoundly elongated. Bone age was estimated as six to eight years old at the time of death, but the skeleton was only 15 centimetres long.
Now, genome sequencing by researchers in California and Mexico reveals the genetic causes of the skeleton’s developmental abnormalities and provides insight into its age and ancestry.
“This was an unusual specimen with some fairly extraordinary claims put forward,” says senior author Gary Nolan from Stanford University in the US.
Indeed, speculation following its discovery was rampant. Perhaps it was a non-human primate, some suggested, or a human foetus suffering congenital defects, or possibly a child with profound and unprecedented dwarfism. Others believed it was evidence of extraterrestrial life.
Initial DNA testing, conducted by Nolan in 2013, revealed that the skeleton, dubbed ‘Ata’, is indeed of earthly origin, and very much human. The opportunity to follow up with whole genome sequencing was too interesting to pass up.
“It would be an example of how to use modern science to answer the question ‘what is it?’,” Nolan explains.
Ata’s genome was sequenced and compared to those of Homo sapiens, chimpanzees and rhesus macaques, confirming again that the skeleton was indeed human. X and Y chromosome analysis revealed that the specimen was female, while a comparison of the single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in Ata’s genome with those used as markers for distinct geographical populations suggested her ancestry was Chilean.
Next, the scientists searched for an explanation for her appearance.
According to Nolan, Ata’s “dramatic phenotype could in fact be explained with a relatively short list of mutations in genes known previously to be associated with bone development”.
Specifically, she possessed DNA mutations in several genes associated with bone formation and musculoskeletal development. Mutations in these have been linked to dwarfism, rib anomalies, cranial malformations, scoliosis and other developmental diseases.
There were also mutations in genes associated with two rare diseases, forms of cranial and skeletal dysplasia, which are known to produce severe skull malformations like Ata’s.
Interestingly, researchers also identified five mutations that had never been seen before. The affected genes, including two involved in collagen production and another involved in thyroid function, are known for their roles in development and growth. The mutations would have most certainly disrupted their function.
Together, the results suggest that Ata was most likely a pre-term birth and that, among her other abnormalities, her genetic mutations had caused premature bone formation.
The findings, published in the journal Genome Research, highlight how genome sequencing can benefit archaeological research.
“This is a great example of how studying ancient samples can teach us how to analyse modern day medical samples,” says co-author Atul Butte, of the University of California, San Francisco.
Further analysis of Ata’s genome may provide new insight into the process of musculoskeletal development and improve understanding of how certain genetic abnormalities cause this to go awry.
Originally published by Cosmos as Ata girl! Six-inch human’s secrets revealed
Fiona McMillan a science communicator with a background in in physics, biophysics, and structural biology. She was awarded runner up for the 2016 Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.