Evidence of high genetic variation among linguistically diverse populations on a micro-geographic scale: A case study of the Italian Alps
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Although essential for the fine-scale reconstruction of genetic structure, only a few micro-geographic studies have been carried out in European populations. This study analyzes mitochondrial variation (651 bp of the hypervariable region plus 17 single-nucleotide polymorphisms) in 393 samples from nine populations from Trentino (Eastern Italian Alps), a small area characterized by a complex geography and high linguistic diversity. A high level of genetic variation, comparable to geographically dispersed European groups, was observed. We found a difference in the intensity of peopling processes between two longitudinal areas, as populations from the west-central part of the region show stronger signatures of expansion, whereas those from the eastern area are closer to the expectations of a stationary demographic state. This may be explained by geomorphological factors and is also supported by archeological data. Finally, our results reveal a striking difference in the way in which the two linguistically isolated populations are genetically related to the neighboring groups. The Ladin speakers were found to be genetically close to the Italian-speaking populations and differentiated from the other Dolomitic Ladins, whereas the German-speaking Cimbri behave as an outlier, showing signatures of founder effects and low growth rate.