The stickiness of human neurons may have been a key factor in why the human brain evolved beyond the brains of our primate relatives. In a study comparing the genomes of humans, chimpanzees, mice and other vertebrates, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and Joint Genome Institute (JGI) found a strikingly high degree of genetic differences in DNA sequences that appear to regulate genes involved in nerve cell adhesion molecules. Cell adhesion controls many aspects of brain development including growth and structure, and enables neurons to connect with other neurons and supportive proteins. Differences in the molecular connections of human neurons compared to the neurons of chimps, mice and other animals, could help explain why the human brain is capable of far more complex cognitive functions.
In a paper published in the Nov 3, 2006 issue of the journal Science, a team of researchers led by Edward Rubin, MD, director of both JGI and Berkeley Lab's Genomics Division, report on a comparative genomics study of conserved noncoding sequences (CNSs) - sequences of DNA shared by many different organisms that do not code for proteins but play an important role in regulating gene expression. In their Science paper, the researchers identified 992 CNSs whose sequences were specifically modified in humans and enriched near genes involved in neuronal cell adhesion. This is the first genome-wide unbiased study to detect clear evidence of human-specific evolution in brain-related sequences. After further comparisons, the researchers concluded these CNSs "may have contributed to the uniquely human features of brain development and function."
The paper is entitled Accelerated evolution of conserved noncoding sequences in the human genome. Co-authoring the paper with Rubin were Shyam Prabhakar and James Noonan of Berkeley Lab, and Svante Pbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropolo
Contact: Lynn Yarris
DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory