4 beneficial evolutionary mutations that humans are undergoing right now

The genetic mutation that drives evolution is random. But here's a list of some beneficial mutations that are known to exist in human beings

Most random genetic changes caused by evolution are neutral, and some are harmful, but a few turn out to be positive improvements. These beneficial mutations are the raw material that may, in time, be taken up by natural selection and spread through the population. In this post, I'll list some examples of beneficial mutations that are known to exist in human beings.

Beneficial mutation #1: Apolipoprotein AI-Milano

Heart disease is one of the scourges of industrialized countries. It's the legacy of an evolutionary past which programmed us to crave energy-dense fats, once a rare and valuable source of calories, now a source of clogged arteries. But there's evidence that evolution has the potential to deal with it.

All humans have a gene for a protein called Apolipoprotein AI, which is part of the system that transports cholesterol through the bloodstream. Apo-AI is one of the HDLs, already known to be beneficial because they remove cholesterol from artery walls. But a small community in Italy is known to have a mutant version of this protein, named Apolipoprotein AI-Milano, or Apo-AIM for short. Apo-AIM is even more effective than Apo-AI at removing cholesterol from cells and dissolving arterial plaques, and additionally functions as an antioxidant, preventing some of the damage from inflammation that normally occurs in arteriosclerosis. People with the Apo-AIM gene have significantly lower levels of risk than the general population for heart attack and stroke, and pharmaceutical companies are looking into marketing an artificial version of the protein as a cardioprotective drug.

There are also drugs in the pipeline based on a different mutation, in a gene called PCSK9, which has a similar effect. People with this mutation have as much as an 88% lower risk of heart disease.

Beneficial mutation #2: Increased bone density

One of the genes that governs bone density in human beings is called low-density lipoprotein receptor-related protein 5, or LRP5 for short. Mutations which impair the function of LRP5 are known to cause osteoporosis. But a different kind of mutation can amplify its function, causing one of the most unusual human mutations known.

This mutation was first discovered fortuitously, when a young person from a Midwest family was in a serious car crash from which they walked away with no broken bones. X-rays found that they, as well as other members of the same family, had bones significantly stronger and denser than average. (One doctor who's studied the condition said, "None of those people, ranging in age from 3 to 93, had ever had a broken bone.") In fact, they seem resistant not just to injury, but to normal age-related skeletal degeneration. Some of them have benign bony growths on the roof of their mouths, but other than that, the condition has no side effects - although, as the article notes dryly, it does make it more difficult to float. As with Apo-AIM, some drug companies are researching how to use this as the basis for a therapy that could help people with osteoporosis and other skeletal diseases.

Beneficial mutation #3: Malaria resistance

The classic example of evolutionary change in humans is the hemoglobin mutation named HbS that makes red blood cells take on a curved, sickle-like shape. With one copy, it confers resistance to malaria, but with two copies, it causes the illness of sickle-cell anemia. This is not about that mutation.

As reported in 2001 (see also), Italian researchers studying the population of the African country of Burkina Faso found a protective effect associated with a different variant of hemoglobin, named HbC. People with just one copy of this gene are 29% less likely to get malaria, while people with two copies enjoy a 93% reduction in risk. And this gene variant causes, at worst, a mild anemia, nowhere near as debilitating as sickle-cell disease.

Beneficial mutation #4: Tetrachromatic vision

Most mammals have poor color vision because they have only two kinds of cones, the retinal cells that discriminate different colors of light. Humans, like other primates, have three kinds, the legacy of a past where good color vision for finding ripe, brightly colored fruit was a survival advantage.

The gene for one kind of cone, which responds most strongly to blue, is found on chromosome 7. The two other kinds, which are sensitive to red and green, are both on the X chromosome. Since men have only one X, a mutation which disables either the red or the green gene will produce red-green colorblindness, while women have a backup copy. This explains why this is almost exclusively a male condition.

But here's a question: What happens if a mutation to the red or the green gene, rather than disabling it, shifts the range of colors to which it responds? (The red and green genes arose in just this way, from duplication and divergence of a single ancestral cone gene.)

To a man, this would make no real difference. He'd still have three color receptors, just a different set than the rest of us. But if this happened to one of a woman's cone genes, she'd have the blue, the red and the green on one X chromosome, and a mutated fourth one on the other... which means she'd have four different color receptors. She would be, like birds and turtles, a natural "tetrachromat", theoretically capable of discriminating shades of color the rest of us can't tell apart. (Does this mean she'd see brand-new colors the rest of us could never experience? That's an open question.)

And we have evidence that just this has happened on rare occasions. In one study of color discrimination, at least one woman showed exactly the results we would expect from a true tetrachromat.


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Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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