Not So Close Neighbors: The Genetically Isolated People of Finland

Even though European populations have been studied for years, there are still many lingering questions as to the continent’s population history – especially with regards to isolated peoples.  Understanding the history of the Basque of northern Spain has long been a topic of interest among geneticists, as has the origins of the indigenous Saami of northern Finland.

Now, a study published by geneticists at the University of Helsinki supports the conclusion of some recent studies that have hinted that the Finnish people themselves are more genetically isolated than other European populations.

Traditional methods of examining genetic ancestry are focused on two areas of our genome: our mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from mothers to children, revealing information on our maternal ancestry, and the Y-chromosome, which is passed down from fathers to sons, revealing our paternal ancestry.

But these are only two relatively small regions of our entire genome, and geneticists have often said that to truly understand a person’s ancestry we must examine human DNA much more broadly.  One way to do this is to use a genome-wide analysis, examining hundreds of thousands of genetic markers.  The new University of Helsinki study did just that, analyzing more than 250,000 unique SNPS across the entire human genome.

What the researchers found was quite intriguing.  First they investigated German and British populations as a basis for comparison and found them to be genetically close to one another — hardly a surprise considering their historical closeness.  But when the researchers looked at populations from Finland in comparison to other parts of Europe, they found few enough similarities to conclude that Finnish people are genetically isolated from other parts of Europe.

This study is important for a few reasons.  First, it illustrates that using genome-wide analysis, rather than only using the Y-chromosome or the mitochondrial DNA, can reveal much about population history.  Second, it confirms previous hypotheses that Finland – which is both geographically and linguistically isolated from other parts of Europe – is genetically isolated as well.

The ancestors of the modern Finns, once they arrived in this cold land thousands of years ago, remained relatively separate from even their closest European neighbors.  Although modern travel and telecommunications have likely reduced this isolation, the remnants of it are still evident in the genetics.






  • http://cognections.typepad.com/lifeblog cschick

    What is interesting is that there is a large number of allergies (lactose intolerance, psoriasis, for example) in Finns. Also, there is a high prevalence of heart defects, such that it’s no big deal when they find one in a newborn.

    One thing that I am not sure of, is that there is also a high level of twinning – both fraternal and identical. I am not sure if that is environmental or genetic or my imagination.

    Lastly, while the air is very dry (contributing also to skin issues) the ground is moist (bedrock almost at surface) such that fungi are pretty prevalent here (at least compared to the other countries I’ve lived in). I wonder if many of the allergies might be due to auto-immunity due to the fungi.

    Alas, most Finns believe their allergies and cogenital issues are simply due to the ‘founder effect’. Everyone is a cousin here.

    • Jussi Toivanen

      Sorry, but I have to correct some of the misinformation cschick has written here. First of all, lactose intolerance is not an allergy. Also, Finns are not particularly lactose intolerant compared to other Europeans. In that sense they are typical Northern Europeans, and actually, Finns consume the most milk per capita in the world! Heart defects are not particularly common in Finland nor are other inherited diseases more common; Finns only have an unique collection of them but at the same time lacking those that are common in other parts of the Europe, for example.

  • Z Khan

    It is interesting that the Sami have certain East Asian features, almost Mongol-like. I wonder if the Mongol invasions of the Middle Ages have affected the gene pool up there in any way.. The Mongol empire did extend into Russia and even a little into northern Europe.

    • Sidra

      I’m 1/2 Finnish American. My father told me per family oral hx we r descended from Genghis Khan. Most of ‘research’ by academia leans toward Eurocentric view of origins. May be true for some Finns, but recent DNA results show my family IS related to Genghis & has ancient Siberian DNA, some Swedish and Saami! Proud to claim it all as my unique heritage (along w/the Scots-Irish on me Mom’side). My family are very blond to dark blond, predominantly blue eyes. Even though all my siblings & cousins are only 1/2 most of us look Euroasian & a few like blond Asians! I’ve come across a couple of others web who also have oral hx of having Mongolian blood.

      Finn, most of us have a Euroasian look to us with a few looking almost

      • lynnediligent

        What a neat family history!

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  • ResourceDragon

    Has Finnish DNA been compared with that of their linguistic cousins (Estonians and Hungarians, for example)?

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