In 1987, Rebecca Cann, Mark Stoneking and the late Allan Wilson published a paper in Nature showing that all human females can trace their lineage back to a single maternal ancestor (“mitochondrial Eve“) located in Africa. In Plos Genetics this week there is an interesting interview with Rebecca Cann, where she talks about her own history and the research behind the mitochondrial Eve hypothesis.
In unearthing the genetic history of human populations, the recent pace of discovery has been so rapid that we can lose sight of the impact made by a single paper. In a 1987 Nature article, Rebecca Cann and her co-workers, Mark Stoneking and the late Allan Wilson, painstakingly analyzed mitochondrial DNA purified from placentas that had been collected from women of many different ancestral origins. By comparing the mitochondrial DNA variants to each other, the authors produced a phylogenetic tree that showed how human mitochondria are all related to each other and, by implication, how all living females, through whom mitochondria are transmitted, are descended from a single maternal ancestor. Not only that, they localized the root of the tree in Africa. The report left a wake, still rippling today, that stimulated not just geneticists and paleo-anthropologists, but the layperson as well, especially as the ancestor was quickly dubbed “Mitochondrial Eve.”
For the full interview, see Gitschier J (2010) All About Mitochondrial Eve: An Interview with Rebecca Cann. PLoS Genet 6(5): e1000959. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000959