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Human brain is still evolving

Researchers who have analyzed sequence variations in two genes that regulate brain size in human populations have found evidence that the human brain is still evolving.

They speculate that if the human species continues to survive, the human brain may continue to evolve, driven by the pressures of natural selection. Their data suggest that major variants in these genes arose at roughly the same times as the origin of culture in human populations as well as the advent of agriculture and written language. The research team, which was led by Bruce T. Lahn, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of Chicago, published its findings in two articles in the September 9, 2005, issue of the journal Science.

Their analyses focused on detecting sequence changes in two genes Microcephalin and "abnormal spindle-like microcephaly associated" (ASPM) across different human populations. In humans, mutations in either of these genes can render the gene nonfunctional and cause microcephaly a clinical syndrome in which the brain develops to a much smaller size than normal.

In earlier studies of non-human primates and humans, Lahn and his colleagues determined that both Microcephalin and ASPM showed significant changes under the pressure of natural selection during the making of the human species. "Our earlier studies showed that Microcephalin showed evidence of accelerated evolution along the entire primate lineage leading to humans, for the entire thirty to thirty-five million years that we sampled," he said. "However, it seemed to have evolved slightly slower later on. By contrast, ASPM has evolved most rapidly in the last six million years of hominid evolution, after the divergence of humans and chimpanzees."

In order to identify sequence changes that occurred in Microcephalin and ASPM in the evolutionary lineage leading to humans, Lahn and his colleagues took the following approach: They determined the DNA sequences of th
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Contact: Jim Keeley
keeleyj@hhmi.org
301-215-8858
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
8-Sep-2005


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