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

4 beneficial evolutionary mutations that humans are undergoing right now

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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Image courtesy of iStock

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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