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Extra gene copies were enough to make early humans' mouths water
Date:9/9/2007

to recognize tuber-forming plants, they opened up a food source unknown to other apes.

"It's kind of a goldmine," Dominy said. "All you have to do is dig it up."

Tubers may have been especially critical for the first widely successful humans, known as Homo erectus, who may have learned to cook with fire. Since this idea was proposed, about a decade ago, researchers have been looking for evidence to support or refute it--no easy task for a theory that concerns highly perishable food consumed two million years ago. But in work earlier this year, Dominy and his colleagues found that animals eating tubers and bulbs produce body tissues with an isotopic signature that matches what has been measured in early fossilized humans (see earlier press release at http://press.ucsc.edu/text.asp?pid=1251).

The new discovery is a separate line of evidence pointing to the importance of starch in human beginnings, Dominy said. When early humans mastered fire, cooking starchy vegetables would have made them even easier to eat, he added. At the same time it would have made extra amylase gene copies an even more valuable trait.

"We roast tubers, and we eat French fries and baked potatoes," Dominy said. "When you cook, you can afford to eat less overall, because the food is easier to digest. Some marginal food resource that you might only eat in times of famine, now you can cook it and eat it. Now you can have population growth and expand into new territories."


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Contact: Tim Stephens
stephens@ucsc.edu
831-459-2495
University of California - Santa Cruz
Source:Eurekalert

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