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!
Multi-institutional collaboration uncovers how molecular machines assemble
02.12.2016 | Salk Institute
Fertilized egg cells trigger and monitor loss of sperm’s epigenetic memory
02.12.2016 | IMBA - Institut für Molekulare Biotechnologie der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften GmbH
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water
In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...
The efficiency of power electronic systems is not solely dependent on electrical efficiency but also on weight, for example, in mobile systems. When the weight of relevant components and devices in airplanes, for instance, is reduced, fuel savings can be achieved and correspondingly greenhouse gas emissions decreased. New materials and components based on gallium nitride (GaN) can help to reduce weight and increase the efficiency. With these new materials, power electronic switches can be operated at higher switching frequency, resulting in higher power density and lower material costs.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE together with partners have investigated how these materials can be used to make power...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
02.12.2016 | Medical Engineering
02.12.2016 | Agricultural and Forestry Science
02.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy