Evidence that human brain evolution was a special event

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 aft

Contact: Jim Keeley
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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