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Complexity constrains evolution of human brain genes

Despite the explosive growth in size and complexity of the human brain, the pace of evolutionary change among the thousands of genes expressed in brain tissue has actually slowed since the split, millions of years ago, between human and chimpanzee, an international research team reports in the December 26, 2006, issue of the journal, PLOS Biology.

The rapid advance of the human brain, the authors maintain, has not been driven by evolution of protein sequences. The higher complexity of the biochemical network in the brain, they suspect, with multiple gene-gene interactions, places strong constraints on the ability of most brain-related genes to change.

"We found that genes expressed in the human brain have in fact slowed down in their evolution, contrary to some earlier reports," says study author Chung-I Wu, professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. "The more complex the brain, it seems, the more difficult it becomes for brain genes to change. Calibrated against the genomic average, brain-expressed genes in humans appear to have evolved more slowly than in chimpanzee or old-world monkey."

Humans have an exceptionally big brain relative to their body size. Although humans weigh about 20 percent more than chimpanzees, our closest relative, the human brain weighs 250 percent more. How such a massive morphological change occurred over a relatively short evolutionary time has long puzzled biologists.

Previous reports have argued that the genes that regulate brain development and function evolved much more rapidly in humans than in nonhuman primates and other mammals because of natural selection processes unique to the human lineage.

The comparative pace of organ-specific evolution, however, turns out to be difficult to measure. To assess the speed with which both humans and chimpanzees accumulated many small differences in gene sequences accurately, Wu and colleagues in Taiwan and Japan decided to sequ
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Source:University of Chicago Medical Center


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