A new study, published in the open access journal PLoS One Biology, has used metabolites to track evolutionary changes in brain and skeletal muscle tissues. Metabolites are metabolic products or intermediates of low molecular weight (1,500 amu or less), which are associated with the physiological processes that maintain the functionality of body tissues. Changes in the concentrations of these metabolites are thought to be closely related to evolutionary changes in the associated tissues.
Researchers measured the concentrations of more than 10,000 metabolites in the prefrontal cortex, primary visual cortex, cerebellar cortex, skeletal muscles and kidneys of humans, chimpanzees, macaque monkeys and mice using mass spectrometry-based techniques. They found that in most cases the differences reflected genetic distances between the species rather than environmental differences.
The striking exception was found in the human lineage. The concentration profiles of metabolites associated with the human prefrontal cortex, cerebellar cortex and skeletal tissues showed far greater changes than could be accounted for by genetic difference: by a factor of four for the brain tissue, and eight for the muscle tissue. In fact the muscle tissue is implied to have undergone more evolutionary change in the 6 to 7 million years since the divergence from chimpanzees than it did during the 130 or so million years separating mice from the common ancestor of the apes and Old World monkeys. No comparable differences were noted for the primary visual cortex or kidneys. Nor were significant differences to any of these results found after controlling for differences in diet and levels of physical activity.
It is well known that humans are physically quite weak in comparison to chimpanzees, despite weighing in at around twice the size. Surprisingly, this is largely based on anecdotal observations mostly predating the 1950s. Accordingly, the researchers set macaque, chimpanzee and human subjects a ‘pulling task’, which tested both upper and lower body strength. These tests confirmed the anecdotal observations.
The researchers concluded that the metabolic changes in human muscle tissue were associated with a drastic reduction in muscle strength; and that these changes might be linked to the changes in brain metabolism and enhanced cognitive abilities.
The findings are an extension of Aiello and Wheeler’s ‘expensive tissue’ hypothesis, which proposed that the considerable energy requirements of the human brain (around 20 percent of the total energy budget) could only be met by making savings elsewhere. Aiello and Wheeler (1995) proposed these savings were made by downsizing other energetically-expensive organs, principally the gut. Apparently, though, this was insufficient and further savings were required in the form of a decrease in the energy expenditure of skeletal muscle.
1. Bozek, K. et al., Exceptional Evolutionary Divergence of Human Muscle and Brain Metabolomes Parallels Human Cognitive and Physical Uniqueness. PLoS One Biology 12(5), e1001871 (2014).
2. Aiello, L. & Wheeler, P., The expensive tissue hypothesis: the brain and the digestive system in human and primate evolution. Current Anthropology 36, 199-221 (1995).
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