Evolution, it seems, sometimes jumps instead of crawls.
A research team led by a University of Chicago scientist has discovered two key mutations that sparked a hormonal revolution 500 million years ago.
In a feat of "molecular time travel," the researchers resurrected and analyzed the functions of the ancestors of genes that play key roles in modern human reproduction, development, immunity and cancer. By re-creating the same DNA changes that occurred during those genes' ancient history, the team showed that two mutations set the stage for hormones like estrogen, testosterone and cortisol to take on their crucial present-day roles.
"Changes in just two letters of the genetic code in our deep evolutionary past caused a massive shift in the function of one protein and set in motion the evolution of our present-day hormonal and reproductive systems," said Joe Thornton, PhD, professor of human genetics and ecology & evolution at the University of Chicago, who led the study.
"If those two mutations had not happened, our bodies today would have to use different mechanisms to regulate pregnancy, libido, the response to stress, kidney function, inflammation, and the development of male and female characteristics at puberty," Thornton said.
The findings were published online June 24 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Understanding how the genetic code of a protein determines its functions would allow biochemists to better design drugs and predict the effects of mutations on disease. Thornton said the discovery shows how evolutionary analysis of proteins' histories can advance this goal, Before the group's work, it was not previously known how the various steroid receptors in modern species distinguish estrogens from other hormones.
The team, which included researchers from the University of Oregon, Emory University and the Scripps Research Institute, studied the evolution of a family of proteins called steroid hormone receptors, which mediate the effects of hormones on reproduction, development and physiology. Without receptor proteins, these hormones cannot affect the body's cells.
Thornton's group traced how the ancestor of the entire receptor family—which recognized only estrogens—evolved into descendant proteins capable of recognizing other steroid hormones, such as testosterone, progesterone and the stress hormone cortisol.
To do so, the group used a gene "resurrection" strategy. They first inferred the genetic sequences of ancient receptor proteins, using computational methods to work their way back up the tree of life from a database of hundreds of present-day receptor sequences. They then biochemically synthesized these ancient DNA sequences and used molecular assays to determine the receptors' sensitivity to various hormones.
Thornton's team narrowed down the time range during which the capacity to recognize non-estrogen steroids evolved, to a period about 500 million years ago, before the dawn of vertebrate animals on Earth. They then identified the most important mutations that occurred during that interval by introducing them into the reconstructed ancestral proteins. By measuring how the mutations affected the receptor's structure and function, the team could re-create ancient molecular evolution in the laboratory.
They found that just two changes in the ancient receptor's gene sequence caused a 70,000-fold shift in preference away from estrogens toward other steroid hormones. The researchers also used biophysical techniques to identify the precise atomic-level mechanisms by which the mutations affected the protein's functions. Although only a few atoms in the protein were changed, this radically rewired the network of interactions between the receptor and the hormone, leading to a massive change in function.
"Our findings show that new molecular functions can evolve by sudden large leaps due to a few tiny changes in the genetic code," Thornton said. He pointed out that, along with the two key changes in the receptor, additional mutations, the precise effects of which are not yet known, were necessary for the full effects of hormone signaling on the body to evolve.
This work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Kevin Jiang | EurekAlert!
Communication between neural networks
17.12.2018 | Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg im Breisgau
Neurons migrate in the nascent brain as if on rails
17.12.2018 | Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
Researchers from the University of Basel have reported a new method that allows the physical state of just a few atoms or molecules within a network to be controlled. It is based on the spontaneous self-organization of molecules into extensive networks with pores about one nanometer in size. In the journal ‘small’, the physicists reported on their investigations, which could be of particular importance for the development of new storage devices.
Around the world, researchers are attempting to shrink data storage devices to achieve as large a storage capacity in as small a space as possible. In almost...
The more objects we make "smart," from watches to entire buildings, the greater the need for these devices to store and retrieve massive amounts of data quickly without consuming too much power.
Millions of new memory cells could be part of a computer chip and provide that speed and energy savings, thanks to the discovery of a previously unobserved...
What if, instead of turning up the thermostat, you could warm up with high-tech, flexible patches sewn into your clothes - while significantly reducing your...
A widely used diabetes medication combined with an antihypertensive drug specifically inhibits tumor growth – this was discovered by researchers from the University of Basel’s Biozentrum two years ago. In a follow-up study, recently published in “Cell Reports”, the scientists report that this drug cocktail induces cancer cell death by switching off their energy supply.
The widely used anti-diabetes drug metformin not only reduces blood sugar but also has an anti-cancer effect. However, the metformin dose commonly used in the...
A research team from the University of Zurich has developed a new drone that can retract its propeller arms in flight and make itself small to fit through narrow gaps and holes. This is particularly useful when searching for victims of natural disasters.
Inspecting a damaged building after an earthquake or during a fire is exactly the kind of job that human rescuers would like drones to do for them. A flying...
12.12.2018 | Event News
10.12.2018 | Event News
06.12.2018 | Event News
17.12.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
17.12.2018 | Architecture and Construction
17.12.2018 | Life Sciences