The CENIEH obtains more than two million euros for research in dental anthropology

The researcher Leslea Hlusko will develop a project on the influence of genes on the evolution of teeth and other parts of the anatomy, thanks to an Advanced Grant awarded by the European Research Council (ERC)

Today, the European Research Council (ERC) has announced the winners of its Advanced Grant call for 2021, among whom is Leslea Hlusko, a researcher in the Dental Anthropology Group at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución (CENIEH), who has been awarded a grant of 2,250,000 euros to develop the project “Tied2Teeth” that will study the influence of the genes on tooth size and shape over the course of human evolution, applied to the fossil record of the Iberian Peninsula and eastern Africa.

Variations in tooth size and shape can be used by scientists to interpret the diets of our ancestors, the timing of their maturation during childhood, and the evolutionary relationships among different species. Thanks to this grant, the Dental Anthropology Group will extend its lines of research with the project entitled “Expanding our understanding of human evolution through pleiotropy”.

The first aim of this project is to study variations in skull and tooth size and shape in a colony of baboons living in captivity at the Southwest National Primate Research Center (Texas, United States), to endeavor to see whether the genes that influence variation in the skull also affect how the teeth vary. The response to this question will be important for understanding how the skull and dentition evolved over time: whether the same genes are implicated in both, or whether the skull and dentition have shared genetic effects.

The second aim is to explore how the shape of the teeth has varied in human populations from the last 50,000 years in Europe, eastern Europe, and Africa. In human teeth, there is a lot of variability in minor traits like small cusps or crevices, and the frequency of these traits usually varies with the population. People from one population could have grooves on the tongue side of their upper front teeth (the incisors), while members of a different population mostly have incisors with a very smooth surface.

“It might seem surprising that the genes leading to this type of variation in the teeth also prompt variation in hair thickness, density of sweat glands, and the ductal branching of mammary glands. In other words, these latter traits are also influenced by shared genetic effects. This phenomenon, known as pleiotropy, explains how one gene influences variation in different, seemingly unrelated parts of the body”, says Hlusko.

The creation of a database on human dental variation will make it possible to test hypotheses about how these dental traits interrelate and vary across populations, through time, and across climatological and cultural factors. Hlusko and her team hope to discover whether part of the dental variation could be in reality the result of selection for one of these other traits, such as the hair, sweat glands, or mammary glands.

Leslea Hlusko en la Garganta de Olduvai, Tanzania

For the third aim of the project, the insight gained in pursuit of the first two aims will be applied to the hominid fossil record of Europe and eastern Africa, and hominin and monkey fossils from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania will be studied for comparison with the pieces found at Atapuerca and other sites in the Iberian Peninsula.

European awards for excellence

The total ERC funding for research projects in the Advanced Grant 2021 call is 624.6 million euros, which will go to 253 researchers from 21 European Union Member States and associated countries. This scheme has been established to support excellent scientists at a career stage where they have become consolidated, where they are leaders in their fields and have a recognized track record.

The president of the ERC, Maria Leptin, has congratulated the winners of these European awards for excellence, declaring that “It’s essential to fund this type of cutting-edge research to keep Europe at the scientific forefront".