Getting to know "Mitochondrial Eve"

By studying the way it has mutated and changed over time, scientists can trace human mitochondrial DNA — the DNA that is passed from mother to daughter — back to a single woman. Basically, everybody alive is descended from her. But that's not the same thing as saying that Mitochondrial Eve was once the only woman alive. In a very nice piece — with helpful illustrations — the Christian (but evolution-accepting) scientists at BioLogos explain what Mitochondrial Eve really means and why she can't be used as an argument for creationism. Whether or not you've ever found yourself arguing this point with a family member or friend, the piece is really useful for deepening your understanding of a pop-science concept that's often thrown around without a clear explanation behind it.


  1. *cough*Parasite Eve*cough*. I can’t help but think of that when someone mentions mitochondrial eve. Damn that book, though it did lead to me reading a lot of proper biological literature about mitochondria and their DNA.

    Never thought that it would be used as a crutch for creationism. That’s kinda hilarious and sad.

    1. Wow, I forgot all about that game, one of the few that I actually played all the way through.
      Did not realize it was based on a book.

    1. Yes, but because it is never passed from father to child [*], it is important for people who don’t understand mitochondrial DNA to realize that it represents only the line F > F > F > F > F > M|F !, where the exclamation point indicates the person tested. That’s why the text says “from mother to daughter.”

      [*]My understanding is that there is at least one case of finding M > M! mitochondrial transmission, NEJM 347, but that is consider a freak case for now.

    1.  What flaw? BSG never posited Hera wound up the sole woman alive. Anyway, I like to think that we all have a little Cylon in us…

  2. Here’s another way to visualize how this works.

    Imagine a population with equal numbers of males and females.  They all pair off and have exactly two children who survive to adulthood, either two boys, two girls, or a boy and a girl, and they all have children at the same age (twins, to make it simple, on their 30th birthday).  That way, each generation is the same size as the last, and every member of the original generation has descendants in every subsequent generation.  BUT: in the very first generation, 1/4 of the couples have only boys, 1/4 have only girls, and half have one of each.  The men lucky enough to have two boys, and the women lucky enough to have two girls, double the concentration of their sex-linked DNA in the next generation, and also double their chances of propagating it in every generation thereafter. The result is that before too long, you’ll have a mitochondrial Eve and a Y-Adam, even though all members of the founding generation have descendants in every generation after that.

    1. Bear in mind that just because there is a study that says something does not mean that that thing is true or even a consensus view in a field.  It would be interesting to see how widely cited this paper is.

      Besides that, it doesn’t seem as though the mother to offspring thing has to be 100% to justify a conclusion that there was probably a mitochondrial Eve.  It seems to me a more relevant question is whether all mitochondria that have had their genes analyzed are descended from a relatively recent common ancestor.  If we keep looking at mitochondria and keep finding that they’re related with a common ancestor 200,000 years ago the idea of a mitochondrial Eve starts seeming pretty plausible, no?

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