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1.  Demographic Histories, Isolation and Social Factors as Determinants of the Genetic Structure of Alpine Linguistic Groups 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(12):e81704.
Great European mountain ranges have acted as barriers to gene flow for resident populations since prehistory and have offered a place for the settlement of small, and sometimes culturally diverse, communities. Therefore, the human groups that have settled in these areas are worth exploring as an important potential source of diversity in the genetic structure of European populations. In this study, we present new high resolution data concerning Y chromosomal variation in three distinct Alpine ethno-linguistic groups, Italian, Ladin and German. Combining unpublished and literature data on Y chromosome and mitochondrial variation, we were able to detect different genetic patterns. In fact, within and among population diversity values observed vary across linguistic groups, with German and Italian speakers at the two extremes, and seem to reflect their different demographic histories. Using simulations we inferred that the joint effect of continued genetic isolation and reduced founding group size may explain the apportionment of genetic diversity observed in all groups. Extending the analysis to other continental populations, we observed that the genetic differentiation of Ladins and German speakers from Europeans is comparable or even greater to that observed for well known outliers like Sardinian and Basques. Finally, we found that in south Tyroleans, the social practice of Geschlossener Hof, a hereditary norm which might have favored male dispersal, coincides with a significant intra-group diversity for mtDNA but not for Y chromosome, a genetic pattern which is opposite to those expected among patrilocal populations. Together with previous evidence regarding the possible effects of “local ethnicity” on the genetic structure of German speakers that have settled in the eastern Italian Alps, this finding suggests that taking socio-cultural factors into account together with geographical variables and linguistic diversity may help unveil some yet to be understood aspects of the genetic structure of European populations.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081704
PMCID: PMC3847036  PMID: 24312576
2.  The Light Skin Allele of SLC24A5 in South Asians and Europeans Shares Identity by Descent 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(11):e1003912.
Skin pigmentation is one of the most variable phenotypic traits in humans. A non-synonymous substitution (rs1426654) in the third exon of SLC24A5 accounts for lighter skin in Europeans but not in East Asians. A previous genome-wide association study carried out in a heterogeneous sample of UK immigrants of South Asian descent suggested that this gene also contributes significantly to skin pigmentation variation among South Asians. In the present study, we have quantitatively assessed skin pigmentation for a largely homogeneous cohort of 1228 individuals from the Southern region of the Indian subcontinent. Our data confirm significant association of rs1426654 SNP with skin pigmentation, explaining about 27% of total phenotypic variation in the cohort studied. Our extensive survey of the polymorphism in 1573 individuals from 54 ethnic populations across the Indian subcontinent reveals wide presence of the derived-A allele, although the frequencies vary substantially among populations. We also show that the geospatial pattern of this allele is complex, but most importantly, reflects strong influence of language, geography and demographic history of the populations. Sequencing 11.74 kb of SLC24A5 in 95 individuals worldwide reveals that the rs1426654-A alleles in South Asian and West Eurasian populations are monophyletic and occur on the background of a common haplotype that is characterized by low genetic diversity. We date the coalescence of the light skin associated allele at 22–28 KYA. Both our sequence and genome-wide genotype data confirm that this gene has been a target for positive selection among Europeans. However, the latter also shows additional evidence of selection in populations of the Middle East, Central Asia, Pakistan and North India but not in South India.
Author Summary
Human skin color is one of the most visible aspects of human diversity. The genetic basis of pigmentation in Europeans has been understood to some extent, but our knowledge about South Asians has been restricted to a handful of studies. It has been suggested that a single nucleotide difference in SLC24A5 accounts for 25–38% European-African pigmentation differences and correlates with lighter skin. This genetic variant has also been associated with skin color variation among South Asians living in the UK. Here, we report a study based on a homogenous cohort of South India. Our results confirm that SLC24A5 plays a key role in pigmentation diversity of South Asians. Country-wide screening of the variant reveals that the light skin associated allele is widespread in the Indian subcontinent and its complex patterning is shaped by a combination of processes involving selection and demographic history of the populations. By studying the variation of SLC24A5 sequences among a diverse set of individuals, we show that the light skin associated allele in South Asians is identical by descent to that found in Europeans. Our study also provides new insights into positive selection acting on the gene and the evolutionary history of light skin in humans.
doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1003912
PMCID: PMC3820762  PMID: 24244186
3.  Detecting Genetic Isolation in Human Populations: A Study of European Language Minorities 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(2):e56371.
The identification of isolation signatures is fundamental to better understand the genetic structure of human populations and to test the relations between cultural factors and genetic variation. However, with current approaches, it is not possible to distinguish between the consequences of long-term isolation and the effects of reduced sample size, selection and differential gene flow. To overcome these limitations, we have integrated the analysis of classical genetic diversity measures with a Bayesian method to estimate gene flow and have carried out simulations based on the coalescent. Combining these approaches, we first tested whether the relatively short history of cultural and geographical isolation of four “linguistic islands” of the Eastern Alps (Lessinia, Sauris, Sappada and Timau) had left detectable signatures in their genetic structure. We then compared our findings to previous studies of European population isolates. Finally, we explored the importance of demographic and cultural factors in shaping genetic diversity among the groups under study. A combination of small initial effective size and continued genetic isolation from surrounding populations seems to provide a coherent explanation for the diversity observed among Sauris, Sappada and Timau, which was found to be substantially greater than in other groups of European isolated populations. Simulations of micro-evolutionary scenarios indicate that ethnicity might have been important in increasing genetic diversity among these culturally related and spatially close populations.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056371
PMCID: PMC3572090  PMID: 23418562
4.  “Do Octopuses Have a Brain?” Knowledge, Perceptions and Attitudes towards Neuroscience at School 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(10):e47943.
The present study contributes to the question of school literacy about the brain, with an original survey conducted on Italian students from the 3rd to 10th grades (n = 508). The main goal was to test student's knowledge, attitudes, and interests about neuroscience, to assess needs, prospects, and difficulties in teaching about the brain from elementary to high school. A written questionnaire, maintaining anonymity, asked 12 close-ended multiple choice questions on topics related to human and animal brains, plus one facultative open-ended question about interests and curiosities on brain topics. The results show that respondents have a fragmentary level of basic knowledge about the brain, with aspects related to brain functions and consciousness the most challenging. As expected, degrees of performance improve with school level; elementary school students answered correctly an average number of 5.3 questions, middle school 6.5, and high school 7.4. Overall, students show great interest in the brain, as shown by the large number of questions gathered through the open-ended question (n = 384). Other topics are addressed, mostly related to brain structure/functions and the role of the brain in the everyday life. The survey indicates the need of more thorough school programs on this subject, reinforced by interdisciplinary teaching where comparative anatomy and evolutionary aspects of brain development are covered.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047943
PMCID: PMC3474737  PMID: 23082231
5.  The Influence of Natural Barriers in Shaping the Genetic Structure of Maharashtra Populations 
PLoS ONE  2010;5(12):e15283.
Background
The geographical position of Maharashtra state makes it rather essential to study the dispersal of modern humans in South Asia. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the cultural, linguistic and geographical affinity of the populations living in Maharashtra state with other South Asian populations. The genetic origin of populations living in this state is poorly understood and hitherto been described at low molecular resolution level.
Methodology/Principal Findings
To address this issue, we have analyzed the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of 185 individuals and NRY (non-recombining region of Y chromosome) of 98 individuals belonging to two major tribal populations of Maharashtra, and compared their molecular variations with that of 54 South Asian contemporary populations of adjacent states. Inter and intra population comparisons reveal that the maternal gene pool of Maharashtra state populations is composed of mainly South Asian haplogroups with traces of east and west Eurasian haplogroups, while the paternal haplogroups comprise the South Asian as well as signature of near eastern specific haplogroup J2a.
Conclusions/Significance
Our analysis suggests that Indian populations, including Maharashtra state, are largely derived from Paleolithic ancient settlers; however, a more recent (∼10 Ky older) detectable paternal gene flow from west Asia is well reflected in the present study. These findings reveal movement of populations to Maharashtra through the western coast rather than mainland where Western Ghats-Vindhya Mountains and Narmada-Tapti rivers might have acted as a natural barrier. Comparing the Maharastrian populations with other South Asian populations reveals that they have a closer affinity with the South Indian than with the Central Indian populations.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015283
PMCID: PMC3004917  PMID: 21187967

Results 1-5 (5)