Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Evidence that human brain evolution was a special event

29.12.2004


Genes that control the size and complexity of the brain have undergone much more rapid evolution in humans than in non-human primates or other mammals, according to a new study by Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers.



The accelerated evolution of these genes in the human lineage was apparently driven by strong selection. In the ancestors of humans, having bigger and more complex brains appears to have carried a particularly large advantage, much more so than for other mammals. These traits allowed individuals with "better brains" to leave behind more descendants. As a result, genetic mutations that produced bigger and more complex brains spread in the population very quickly. This led ultimately to a dramatic "speeding up" of evolution in genes controlling brain size and complexity.

"People in many fields, including evolutionary biology, anthropology and sociology, have long debated whether the evolution of the human brain was a special event," said senior author Bruce Lahn of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Chicago. "I believe that our study settles this question by showing that it was."


Lahn and his colleagues reported their data in a research article published in the December 29, 2004, issue of the journal Cell.

The researchers focused their study on 214 brain-related genes, that is, genes involved in controlling brain development and function. They examined how the DNA sequences of these genes changed over evolutionary time in four species: humans, macaque monkeys, rats, and mice. Humans and macaques shared a common ancestor 20-25 million years ago, whereas rats and mice are separated by 16-23 million years of evolution. All four species shared a common ancestor about 80 million years ago.

Humans have extraordinarily large and complex brains, even when compared with macaques and other non-human primates. The human brain is several times larger than that of the macaque -- even after correcting for body size -- and "it is far more complicated in terms of structure," said Lahn.

For each gene, Lahn and his colleagues counted the number of changes in the DNA sequence that altered the protein produced by the gene. They then obtained the rate of evolution for that gene by scaling the number of DNA changes to the amount of evolutionary time taken to make those changes.

By this measure, brain-related genes evolved much faster in humans and macaques than in mice and rats. In addition, the rate of evolution has been far greater in the lineage leading to humans than in the lineage leading to macaques.

This accelerated rate of evolution is consistent with the presence of selective forces in the human lineage that strongly favored larger and more complex brains. "The human lineage appears to have been subjected to very different selective regimes compared to most other lineages," said Lahn. "Selection for greater intelligence and hence larger and more complex brains is far more intense during human evolution than during the evolution of other mammals."

To further examine the role of selection in the evolution of brain-related genes, Lahn and his colleagues divided these genes into two groups. One group contained genes involved in the development of the brain during embryonic, fetal and infancy stages. The other group consisted of genes involved in "housekeeping" functions of the brain necessary for neural cells to live and function. If intensified selection indeed drove the dramatic changes in the size and organization of the brain, the developmental genes would be expected to change faster than the housekeeping genes during human evolution. Sure enough, Lahn’s group found that the developmental genes showed much higher rate of change than the housekeeping genes.

In addition to uncovering the overall trend that brain-related genes -- particularly those involved in brain development -- evolved significantly faster in the human lineage, the study also uncovered two dozen "outlier" genes that might have made important contributions to the evolution of the human brain. These outlier genes were identified by virtue of the fact that their rate of change is especially accelerated in the human lineage, far more so than the other genes examined in the study. Strikingly, most of these outlier genes are involved in controlling either the overall size or the behavioral output of the brain -- aspects of the brain that have changed the most during human evolution.

According to graduate student Eric Vallender, a coauthor of the article, it is entirely possible by chance that that two or three of these outlier genes might be involved in controlling brain size or behavior. "But we see a lot more than a couple -- more like 17 out of the two dozen outliers," he said. Thus, according to Lahn, genes controlling the overall size and behavioral output of the brain are perhaps places of the genome where nature has done the most amount of tinkering in the process of creating the powerful brain that humans possess today.

There is "no question" that Lahn’s group has uncovered evidence of selection, said Ajit Varki of the University of California, San Diego. Furthermore, by choosing to look at specific genes, Lahn and his colleagues have demonstrated "that the candidate gene approach is alive and well," said Varki. "They have found lots of interesting things."

One of the study’s major surprises is the relatively large number of genes that have contributed to human brain evolution. "For a long time, people have debated about the genetic underpinning of human brain evolution," said Lahn. "Is it a few mutations in a few genes, a lot of mutations in a few genes, or a lot of mutations in a lot of genes? The answer appears to be a lot of mutations in a lot of genes. We’ve done a rough calculation that the evolution of the human brain probably involves hundreds if not thousands of mutations in perhaps hundreds or thousands of genes -- and even that is a conservative estimate."

It is nothing short of spectacular that so many mutations in so many genes were acquired during the mere 20-25 million years of time in the evolutionary lineage leading to humans, according to Lahn. This means that selection has worked "extra-hard" during human evolution to create the powerful brain that exists in humans.

Varki points out that several major events in recent human evolution may reflect the action of strong selective forces, including the appearance of the genus Homo about 2 million years ago, a major expansion of the brain beginning about a half million years ago, and the appearance of anatomically modern humans about 150,000 years ago. "It’s clear that human evolution did not occur in one fell swoop," he said, "which makes sense, given that the brain is such a complex organ."

Lahn further speculated that the strong selection for better brains may still be ongoing in the present-day human populations. Why the human lineage experienced such intensified selection for better brains but not other species is an open question. Lahn believes that answers to this important question will come not just from the biological sciences but from the social sciences as well. It is perhaps the complex social structures and cultural behaviors unique in human ancestors that fueled the rapid evolution of the brain. "This paper is going to open up lots of discussion," Lahn said. "We have to start thinking about how social structures and cultural behaviors in the lineage leading to humans differed from that in other lineages, and how such differences have powered human evolution in a unique manner. To me, that is the most exciting part of this paper."

Jim Keeley | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.hhmi.org

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Modern genetic sequencing tools give clearer picture of how corals are related
17.08.2017 | University of Washington

nachricht The irresistible fragrance of dying vinegar flies
16.08.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für chemische Ökologie

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Fizzy soda water could be key to clean manufacture of flat wonder material: Graphene

Whether you call it effervescent, fizzy, or sparkling, carbonated water is making a comeback as a beverage. Aside from quenching thirst, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a new use for these "bubbly" concoctions that will have major impact on the manufacturer of the world's thinnest, flattest, and one most useful materials -- graphene.

As graphene's popularity grows as an advanced "wonder" material, the speed and quality at which it can be manufactured will be paramount. With that in mind,...

Im Focus: Exotic quantum states made from light: Physicists create optical “wells” for a super-photon

Physicists at the University of Bonn have managed to create optical hollows and more complex patterns into which the light of a Bose-Einstein condensate flows. The creation of such highly low-loss structures for light is a prerequisite for complex light circuits, such as for quantum information processing for a new generation of computers. The researchers are now presenting their results in the journal Nature Photonics.

Light particles (photons) occur as tiny, indivisible portions. Many thousands of these light portions can be merged to form a single super-photon if they are...

Im Focus: Circular RNA linked to brain function

For the first time, scientists have shown that circular RNA is linked to brain function. When a RNA molecule called Cdr1as was deleted from the genome of mice, the animals had problems filtering out unnecessary information – like patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.

While hundreds of circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant in mammalian brains, one big question has remained unanswered: What are they actually good for? In the...

Im Focus: RAVAN CubeSat measures Earth's outgoing energy

An experimental small satellite has successfully collected and delivered data on a key measurement for predicting changes in Earth's climate.

The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) CubeSat was launched into low-Earth orbit on Nov. 11, 2016, in order to test new...

Im Focus: Scientists shine new light on the “other high temperature superconductor”

A study led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg presents evidence of the coexistence of superconductivity and “charge-density-waves” in compounds of the poorly-studied family of bismuthates. This observation opens up new perspectives for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of high-temperature superconductivity, a topic which is at the core of condensed matter research since more than 30 years. The paper by Nicoletti et al has been published in the PNAS.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, superconductivity had been observed in some metals at temperatures only a few degrees above the absolute zero (minus...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Call for Papers – ICNFT 2018, 5th International Conference on New Forming Technology

16.08.2017 | Event News

Sustainability is the business model of tomorrow

04.08.2017 | Event News

Clash of Realities 2017: Registration now open. International Conference at TH Köln

26.07.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Climate change: In their old age, trees still accumulate large quantities of carbon

17.08.2017 | Earth Sciences

Modern genetic sequencing tools give clearer picture of how corals are related

17.08.2017 | Life Sciences

Superconductivity research reveals potential new state of matter

17.08.2017 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>