Rebecca L. Cann

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Rebecca L. Cann
Born 1951
Burlington, Iowa
Residence Honolulu, Hawaii
Citizenship United States
Nationality American
Fields Anthropology, genetics, ornithology
Institutions University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Alma mater University of California, Berkeley
Doctoral advisor Allan Wilson
Known for Mitochondrial Eve
Out of Africa theory

Rebecca L. Cann (born 1951) is a geneticist who made a scientific breakthrough on mitochondrial DNA variation and evolution in humans, popularly called Mitochondrial Eve. Her discovery that all living humans are genetically descended from a single African mother who lived <200,000 years ago became the foundation of the Out of Africa theory, the most widely accepted explanation of the origin of all modern humans. She is currently Professor in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Rebecca Cann was born in 1951 and spent her childhood at Des Moines, Iowa, where she completed her elementary schooling. In a summer, just before she started high school, her family moved to California, San Francisco. In 1967 she entered an all-girl Catholic High School in California.[2] She earned a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree with a major in genetics at University of California, Berkeley in 1972. She then worked at Cutter Laboratories at Berkeley for five years (1972-1977) after finishing college, where she worked on macaque serum proteins and learned the techniques for constructing phylogenetic tree, which would be pivotal for her later achievements.[2] She continued at UC Berkeley for her doctorate in genetics under the supervision of Allan Wilson of the Department of Biochemistry, and graduated in 1982.[1] She got a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). She Joined the faculty of the Department of Genetics, University of Hawaii at Honolulu in 1986.[3]

Mitochondrial Eve[edit]

Main article: Mitochondrial Eve

Cann laid the experimental groundwork for the concept of Mitochondrial Eve, and the consequent Out of Africa theory. From late 1970s she had collected mtDNA samples from women of different ethnic backgrounds, such as from Asia, South Pacific, Europe and Americans of African descend. The data were used in her PhD thesis in 1982. Following her research, a junior graduate student Mark Stoneking added samples from aboriginal Australians and New Guineans. In 1987, after a year of delay, their collective paper was published in Nature in which their findings indicated that all living humans were descended through a single mother, who lived ~200,000 years ago in Africa.[4] The theoretical mother of all humans popularly became the Mitochondrial Eve, and the underlying concept directly implies recent African origin of modern humans, hence, the tenet of the so-called Out of Africa theory.[5][6]

Personal life[edit]

She retains the surname Cann from her former husband whom she married in 1972, right after her graduation from Berkeley. In fact she helped her then husband through his graduate school and only when he finished, she started attending graduate school.[2]

Cann was featured on MidWeek‘s cover on 19 March 1997 for her Mitochondrial Eve.[3]


  • Wilson AC, Stoneking M, Cann RL, Prager EM, Ferris SD, Wrischnik LA, Higuchi RG. 1987. Mitochondrial clans and the age of our common mother. In: Human Genetics: Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress, Berlin 1986. F Vogel and K Sperling (eds.), Springer-Verlag, Berlin, pp. 158–164. ISBN 978-3642716379
  • Stoneking M, Cann RL. 1989. African origin of human mitochondrial DNA. In: The Human Revolution: Behavioural and Biological Perspectives on the Origins of Modern Humans. P Mellars and C Stringer (eds.), Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, pp. 17–30. ISBN 978-0691085395
  • Rebecca L. Cann. 1996. Mitochondrial DNA and human evolution. In: Origins of the Human Brain. JP Changeux, J Chavaillon (eds). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198523901
  • Cann RL. 1997. Chapter 4: Mothers, Labels, and Misogyny. In: Women in Human Evolution. Hager LD (ed). Routledge, London, UK, pp. 75–89. ISBN 9780415108331
  • Diller KC, Cann RL. 2009. Evidence against a genetic-based revolution in language 50,000 years ago. In: The Cradle of Language. R Botha, C Knight (eds). New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 135–149. ISBN 9780199545865
  • Diller KC, Cann RL. 2011. Molecular perspectives on human evolution. In: The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution. KR Gibson, M Tallerman (eds). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199541119


  1. ^ a b Wood B (2011). Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Human Evolution (2 ed.). New Jersey, US: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 9781444342475. 
  2. ^ a b c Gitschier J (2010). "All about Mitochondrial Eve: An interview with Rebecca Cann". PLoS Genetics 6 (3): e1000959. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000959. PMC 2877732. PMID 20523888. 
  3. ^ a b Fleck C (1 February 2012). "Rebecca Cann". MidWeek. MidWeek Printing, Inc., An Oahu Publications company. Retrieved 2013-05-03. 
  4. ^ Cann RL, Stoneking M, Wilson AC (1987). "Mitochondrial DNA and human evolution". Nature 325 (6099): 31–36. doi:10.1038/325031a0. PMID 3025745. 
  5. ^ Vigilant L, Stoneking M, Harpending H, Hawkes K, Wilson AC (September 1991). "African populations and the evolution of human mitochondrial DNA". Science 253 (5027): 1503–1507. doi:10.1126/science.1840702. PMID 1840702. 
  6. ^ Stoneking M (2009). "Human origins. The molecular perspective". EMBO Reports 9 (Suppl): S46–S50. doi:10.1038/embor.2008.64. 

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