Haplogroup H of mitochondrial DNA, a far echo of the West in the heart of Central Asia

Through the millennia, Inner Asia played a pivotal role in shaping the history that greatly added to the cultural, ethnic, and genetic diversity observed throughout present Eurasia. Perhaps the two most significant phenomena witnessed in this part of the world were the ambitious expansion strategy employed by Mongolia’s most prominent personality, Genghis Khan and the complex network known as the Silk Road that for nearly 3,000 years contributed to the exchange of goods and the transmission of philosophy, art, and science that laid the foundation for the great civilizations of China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia, and Rome, and in several respects to the modern world. Over the last few years, through an international collaborative effort, researchers at the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation were able to collect 2,727 DNA samples, informed consents, and genealogical data in Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. All the samples were sequenced for the three hypervariable segments of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) control region to assess the genetic composition of the modern population of these countries. We identified ~600 different haplotypes that could be ascribed to more than 30 haplogroups and sub-haplogroups. As expected, most haplogroups are typical of modern East Asian populations, but intriguingly, many different Western Eurasian clades were also identified, with a particular high incidence of H (~8.0%), the most common haplogroup in Europe. This feature cannot be attributed to genetic drift since different H sub-lineages have also been identified, each of them represented by several different haplotypes. The mtDNA distribution profile in the heart of Central Asia suggests a direct link between this area and Western Eurasia that could be explained by ancient migrations or by more recent historical events, such as Genghis Khan’s conquering efforts and trade or cultural exchanges along the Silk Route. To discriminate between these two possible scenarios, we are now analyzing a subset of these samples at the highest possible level of resolution - that of complete mtDNA sequences - focusing particularly on those H mtDNAs that seem to be the most informative considering their control-region haplotypes. Our preliminary data seems to be in favor of rather ancient genetic inputs from the West in shaping the peculiar mtDNA gene pool of Inner Asia’s present-day populations.