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Evolution's twist

When our human ancestors started eating meat, evolution served up a healthy bonus the development of genes that offset high cholesterol and chronic diseases associated with a meat-rich diet, according to a new USC study.

Those ancestors also started living longer than ever before an unexpected evolutionary twist.

The research by USC professors Caleb Finch and Craig Stanford appears in Wednesday's Quarterly Review of Biology.

"At some point probably about 2 1/2 million years ago meat eating became important to humans," said Stanford, chair of the anthropology department in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, "and when that happened, everything changed."

"Meat contains cholesterol and fat, not to mention potential parasites and diseases like Mad Cow," he said. "We believe humans evolved to resist these kinds of things. Mad Cow disease which probably goes back millions of years would have wiped out the species if we hadn't developed meat-tolerant genes."

Finch, the paper's lead author, and Stanford found unexpected treasure troves in research ranging from chronic disease in great apes to the evolution of the human diet. They also focused on several genes, including apolipoprotein E (apoE), which decreases the risk of Alzheimer's and vascular disease in aging human adults.

Chimpanzees who eat more meat than any other great ape, but are still largely vegetarian served as an ideal comparison because they carry a different variation of the apoE gene, yet lack human ancestors' resistance to diseases associated with a meat-rich diet.

While chimpanzees have a shorter life span compared to humans, they demonstrate accelerated physical and cerebral development, remain fertile into old age and experience few brain-aging changes relative to the devastation of Alzheimer's seen in humans today. Finch and Stanford argued that the new human apoE variants protected the chimpanzees.

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Contact: Gilien Silsby or Gia Scafidi
silsby@usc.edu
213-740-2215
University of Southern California
19-Mar-2004


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