Humans have many more copies of this gene than any of their ape relatives, the study found, and they use the copies to flood their mouths with amylase, an enzyme that digests starch. The finding bolsters the idea that starch was a crucial addition to the diet of early humans, and that natural selection favored individuals who could make more starch-digesting protein.
"Extra gene copies are an easy way for evolution to ramp up expression of a protein," said Nathaniel Dominy, assistant professor of anthropology at University of California, Santa Cruz, and one of the paper's authors. "Why wait for chance mutations to improve gene function" Natural selection can favor duplicate copies of a gene that already works well, and enzyme production will increase."
Other primates eat mainly ripe fruits containing very little starch. A new ability to supplement the diet with calorie-rich starches could have fed our large brains and opened up new food supplies that fueled our unrivaled colonization of the planet, Dominy said.
The researchers sampled saliva from 50 European-American undergraduates and found as many as 15 copies of the amylase gene per person. By comparison, all 15 chimpanzees they sampled had exactly two copies each. Students with more copies of the gene also had higher concentrations of the enzyme in their spit.
Next, the team studied groups of humans with differing diets. They found a similar correspondence between the amount of starch in a group's diet and the average number of amylase gene copies its individuals possessed. For example, the Yakut of the Arctic, whose traditional diet centers around fish, had fewer copies than the related Japanese, whose diet includes starchy foods like rice, Dominy said. The same pattern existed for two Tanzanian tribes--the Datog, who raise livestock, and the Hadza, who primarily gather tubers and roots.
"Even though they're closely related genetically and live close to each other geographically, still there are big differences in the average number of copies in these populations," Dominy said. "So we felt like geography and relatedness are not driving these differences. It's got to be diet."
For Dominy and his coauthors, the finding goes beyond the mouth. In pondering human origins, Dominy said, anthropologists have long been stumped by the sudden, nearly simultaneous increases in our brain size, body size, and geographic range, while other apes changed little. Early humans simply must have found some source of better nutrition to make it all possible, they reasoned.
"That's the big mystery of paleoanthropology," Dominy said. "What changed" Why did our earliest human ancestors deviate from the pattern we see in living apes to evolve this incredibly large brain, which is very energetically expensive to maintain, and to become a much more efficient bipedal organism""
For years, the answer was thought to be the growing importance of meat in the diet, as early humans learned to hunt. But, Dominy pointed out, "Even when you look at modern human hunter-gatherers, meat is a relatively small fraction of their diet. They cooperate with language, use nets; they have poisoned arrows, even, and still it's not that easy to hunt meat. To think that, two to four million years ago, a small-brained, awkwardly bipedal animal could efficiently acquire meat, even by scavenging, just doesn't make a whole lot of sense."
Some anthropologists have begun to suspect the new source of food consisted of starches, stored by plants in the form of underground tubers and bulbs--wild versions of modern-day foods like carrots, potatoes, and onions. Once early humans learned to recognize tuber-forming plants, they opened up a food source unknown to other apes.
"It's kind of a goldmine," Dominy said. "All you have to do is dig it up."
Tubers may have been especially critical for the first widely successful humans, known as Homo erectus, who may have learned to cook with fire. Since this idea was proposed, about a decade ago, researchers have been looking for evidence to support or refute it--no easy task for a theory that concerns highly perishable food consumed two million years ago. But in work earlier this year, Dominy and his colleagues found that animals eating tubers and bulbs produce body tissues with an isotopic signature that matches what has been measured in early fossilized humans (see earlier press release at http://press.ucsc.edu/text.asp?pid=1251).
The new discovery is a separate line of evidence pointing to the importance of starch in human beginnings, Dominy said. When early humans mastered fire, cooking starchy vegetables would have made them even easier to eat, he added. At the same time it would have made extra amylase gene copies an even more valuable trait.
"We roast tubers, and we eat French fries and baked potatoes," Dominy said. "When you cook, you can afford to eat less overall, because the food is easier to digest. Some marginal food resource that you might only eat in times of famine, now you can cook it and eat it. Now you can have population growth and expand into new territories."
Tim Stephens | EurekAlert!
Carefully crafted light pulses control neuron activity
20.11.2017 | University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Could this protein protect people against coronary artery disease?
17.11.2017 | University of North Carolina Health Care
The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.
Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...
Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.
That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...
Computer Tomography (CT) is a standard procedure in hospitals, but so far, the technology has not been suitable for imaging extremely small objects. In PNAS, a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) describes a Nano-CT device that creates three-dimensional x-ray images at resolutions up to 100 nanometers. The first test application: Together with colleagues from the University of Kassel and Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht the researchers analyzed the locomotory system of a velvet worm.
During a CT analysis, the object under investigation is x-rayed and a detector measures the respective amount of radiation absorbed from various angles....
The quantum world is fragile; error correction codes are needed to protect the information stored in a quantum object from the deteriorating effects of noise. Quantum physicists in Innsbruck have developed a protocol to pass quantum information between differently encoded building blocks of a future quantum computer, such as processors and memories. Scientists may use this protocol in the future to build a data bus for quantum computers. The researchers have published their work in the journal Nature Communications.
Future quantum computers will be able to solve problems where conventional computers fail today. We are still far away from any large-scale implementation,...
Pillared graphene would transfer heat better if the theoretical material had a few asymmetric junctions that caused wrinkles, according to Rice University...
15.11.2017 | Event News
15.11.2017 | Event News
30.10.2017 | Event News
20.11.2017 | Earth Sciences
20.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
17.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy