Remarkably, the study shows that some of the proteins involved in synapse signalling and learning and memory are found in yeast, where they act to respond to signals from their environment, such as stress due to limited food or temperature change.
"The set of proteins found in single-cell animals represents the ancient or 'protosynapse' involved with simple behaviours," continues Professor Grant. "This set of proteins was embellished by addition of new proteins with the evolution of invertebrates and vertebrates and this has contributed to the more complex behaviours of these animals.
"The number and complexity of proteins in the synapse first exploded when muticellular animals emerged, some billion years ago. A second wave occurred with the appearance of vertebrates, perhaps 500 million years ago"
One of the team's major achievements was to isolate, for the first time, the synapse proteins from brains of flies, which confirmed that invertebrates have a simpler set of proteins than vertebrates.
Most important for understanding of human thought, they found the expansion in proteins that occurred in vertebrates provided a pool of proteins that were used for making different parts of the brain into the specialised regions such as cortex, cerebellum and spinal cord.
Since the evolution of molecularly complex, 'big' synapses occurred before the emergence of large brains, it may be that these molecular evolutionary events were necessary to allow evolution of big brains found in humans, primates and other vertebrates.
Behavioural studies in animals in which mutations have disrupted synapse genes support the conclusion that the synapse proteins that evolved in vertebrates give rise to a wider range of behaviours including those involved with the highest mental functions. For example, one of the 'vertebrate innovation' genes called SAP1
|Contact: Don Powell|
Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute