Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine say that losing the ability to make a particular kind of sugar molecule boosted disease protection in early hominids, and may have directed the evolutionary emergence of our ancestors, the genus Homo. The findings, published in this week’s early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are among the first evidence of a novel link between cell surface sugars, Darwinian sexual selection, and immune function in the context of human origins
Sialic acids are sugar molecules found on the surfaces of all animal cells, where they serve as vital contact points for interaction with other cells and with the surrounding environment, including as targets for invasive pathogens. For millions of years, the common ancestors of humans and other apes shared a particular kind of sialic acid known as N-glycolylneuraminic acid or Neu5Gc. Then, for reasons possibly linked to a malarial parasite that bound Neu5Gc, a gene mutation three million or so years ago inactivated the human enzyme involved in making the molecule. Instead, humans began producing more of a slightly different form of sialic acid called Neu5Ac, the precursor of Neu5Gc.
“This occurred at about the same time as early humans were apparently becoming major predators in their environment,” said Pascal Gagneux, PhD, an evolutionary biologist and associate professor of cellular and molecular medicine at UC San Diego. “It’s hard to be sure exactly what happened because evolution works on so many things simultaneously, but the change in sialic acid meant that early humans developed an immune response to Neu5Gc. It became viewed by their immune systems as foreign, something to be destroyed. At about the same time, they started eating red meat, a major source of Neu5Gc, which may have further stimulated the immune response.”