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Human Evolution: Africa Exodus Made Homo Sapiens Shorter and Gave Them Arthritis

Newsweek logo Newsweek 2017-07-03 Newsweek Europe

When the first humans left Africa around 100,000 years ago, they got shorter.

The evolutionary shift helped them cope with the colder conditions—a more compact body size helped protect them from frostbite, while and shorter limbs would be less breakable when they fell—but it also appears to have come with a downside: arthritis.

In a study published in Nature Geneticson Monday, scientists at Stanford University, California, have shown how variants within the GDF5 gene, which are related to reduced growth, was repeatedly favored by our ancestors as they migrated out of Africa and across the continents.

But GDF5 has also been linked with osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease that affects an estimated 27 million Americans. Risk increases with age—it is sometimes referred to as wear and tear arthritis—but it also has a strong genetic component.

Previous research has shown how mutations in part of the GDF5 gene cause malformation in bone structure in mice. In humans, it has been associated with a shortness and joint problems, and two changes in particular are linked with a heightened risk of osteoarthritis.

In the latest research, the scientists find GDF5 provided an evolutionary boost for our ancestors, with arthritis apparently a byproduct of it. "The gene we are studying shows strong signatures of positive selection in many human populations," senior author David Kingsley said in a statement

"It's possible that climbing around in cold environments was enough of a risk factor to select for a protective variant even if it brought along an increase likelihood of an age-related disease like arthritis, which typically doesn't develop until late in life."

A display of a series of skeltons showing the evolution of humans at the Peabody Museum, New Haven, Connecticut, circa 1935. Study finds humans became shorter when they first left Africa 100,000 years ago. © Provided by IBT Media (UK) A display of a series of skeltons showing the evolution of humans at the Peabody Museum, New Haven, Connecticut, circa 1935. Study finds humans became shorter when they first left Africa 100,000 years ago.

To better understand GDF5, the team studied the DNA sequences that might affect how the gene is expressed—specifically those that are known as promoters and enhancers. From this they found a previously unidentified region they called GROW1.

When they looked for GROW1 in the 1,000 Genomes Project database—a huge database of genetic sequences of human populations around the world—the team found a single change that is very common in European and Asian populations, but is hardly ever seen in Africans. The team then introduced this change to mice and found it led to reduced activity in the growth of bones.

They then looked at the change to the genetic variant over the course of human evolution, and found it had been repeatedly favored after Homo sapiens left Africa between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. The team says the benefits of being shorter in colder conditions probably outweighed the risk of developing osteoarthritis in later life.

“Because evolutionary fitness requires successful reproduction, alleles that confer benefits at young or reproductive ages may be positively selected in populations, even if they have some deleterious consequences in post-reproductive ages,” they wrote.

Researchers believe this change could help explain why osteoarthritis is rarely seen in Africa, but is more common in other populations. Concluding, Kingsley said: "Because it's been positively selected, this gene variant is present in billions of people. So even though it only increases each person's risk by less than twofold, it's likely responsible for millions of cases of arthritis around the globe.

"This study highlights the intersection between evolution and medicine in really interesting ways, and could help researchers learn more about the molecular causes of arthritis."

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