Humans are curious creatures. We like to poke and prod at new things to see what will happen. This curiosity is part of the reason we are successful. Though it can sometimes lead to disastrous outcomes, curiosity can be the reason not only for cultural inventions, but biological changes. This is especially true for our diet, which has changed radically in the past 10 – 20 thousand years. Two of the biggest changes have been our ability to efficiently digest grains and dairy. The agricultural revolution led to a lot of changes in human diet, including grain and dairy. Humans were experimenting with many new types of food. I’m sure the first individual to started eating grain was met with a warmer reception than the one who suggested we start drinking cow and goat milk. At any rate, both ventures wound up changing our biology and culture. Just think: without amylase and lactase, Santa would be having something other than cookies and milk.
The Short Story of Amylase
In order to digest grains or any other starchy food, an organism needs an enzyme called amylase. Amylase hydrolyzes starch, eventually getting to the glucose molecules contained within the food. Though amylase is not unique to humans, there are some unique aspects about human amylase. In humans there is a positive correlation between the number of copies of the gene responsible for production of amylase, AMY1, that exist in a genome and the expression of amylase in the saliva. Interestingly, the average human contains about 7 times as many copies of AMY1 as chimpanzees, suggesting evidence for amylase selection after our split from the common ancestor with chimpanzees. The small differences between DNA in human AMY1 genes suggest a fairly recent selection event. Moreover, populations with high-starch diets had more AMY1 copies than populations with low-starch diets, further supporting a more recent selection as well as fairly rapid evolution. When it comes to diet, it seems natural selection can act fairly quickly.
The process of carbohydrate digestion begins in the mouth with an enzyme called ptyalin, also known as α-amylase. Ptyalin hydrolyzes the glycosidic bonds within starch molecules, breaking them down into the disaccharide sugar known as maltose. In the walls of the stomach, specialized cells called parietal cells secret hydrogen and chloride ions, creating hydrochloric acid. Amylase, which works at an optimum pH of about 7, cannot function in the highly acidic environment of the stomach.
The second part of starch digestion is initiated in the small intestine by an enzyme called pancreatic amylase. Though pancreatic amylase and salivary amylase are coded by two different DNA segments, they are side by side in the genome. It has been suggested that an endogenous retrovirus inserted DNA in-between the two copies of amylase that existed in our ancestors’ genome; this interruption in the open reading frame of the gene caused a mutation that promoted amylase production in the saliva from one of the gene copies that originally coded for pancreatic amylase. This mutation would have had a clear advantage, allowing for greater breakdown of starchy foods. Further evidence for the positive selection of salivary amylase production can be seen in its independent convergent evolution in mice and humans.
So the story for amylase is fairly short. Our ancestors began with two pancreatic amylase genes, which split to create one pancreatic and one salivary amylase gene. Over time, copy-number variations in genes occurred and were either selected for or against. Random gene duplication in conjunction with varying diets among human populations has resulted in the amylase locus being one of the most variable copy-number loci in the entire human genome.
The Somewhat Longer Story of Lactase
The Neolithic (agricultural) revolution brought about some of the biggest cultural changes that our species has ever seen. Small groups of hunter-gatherers began to morph into large societies of agricultural-based farmers that existed in tandem with a group of people who lived a nomadic herding lifestyle. Nomadic herders could travel between these newly formed cities, trading meat, milk, or animals for agricultural products such as recently domesticated plants and grains. This substantial change in lifestyle caused a rapid overhaul in many aspects of human biology, including immunity, body size, and prevalence of certain digestive enzymes.
Lactase is the enzyme that breaks down the disaccharide sugar lactose, found in dairy products, into the monosaccharides glucose and galactose. Lactase is an essential enzyme because it allows infants to break down the lactose in the mother’s milk. However, there is a down-regulation of the lactase gene during childhood for a significant portion of world’s population. Curiously, the portion of the world’s population that does not experience down-regulation of the lactase gene are mostly of European descent. There is an interesting correlation between geographic location and percent of the population with lactase persistence. The further North you go in Europe, the more lactase persistence you find. This probably has to do with the fact that the colder climate of Europe, especially northern Europe, left fewer options for food consumption. The ability to digest and reap the benefits of lactose into adulthood could have acted as a major factor in surviving to reproductive age, thus increasing the prevalence of lactase persistence in those cultures.
Milk has a decent amount of calories and fat to keep energy reserves up, allowing people to survive harsh winters in Northern Europe. In addition, it provides nutrients such as calcium, protein, and vitamins B12 and D. Today in the Western world we see the high caloric and fat content of milk as a threat of weight gain. However, people living in 7000 B.C. would have seen this as a gold mine for survival. As essential as the calories and fats were to Northern European Neolithic people, the vitamin D content of milk may have been equally as important. In order for the body to synthesize vitamin D, it needs UVB rays from sunlight. This is an issue at northern latitudes, where it’s colder and there’s less sunlight than many other areas on Earth. Moreover, the amount of UVB light that can be absorbed is dependent upon angle at which the Sun’s rays strike the Earth. So even during a clear sunny day in the winter, people living in northern latitudes may not be absorbing UVB rays.
One way to combat the low levels of UVB rays is to have fair skin. UVB rays that strike the skin will cause the synthesis of cholecalciferol (Vitamin D3) from 7-dehydrocholesterol that is already present in the skin, eventually leading to the production of a usable form of vitamin D. Specifically, 7-dehydrocholesterol is found predominately in the two innermost layers of the epidermis. This can be an issue for UVB absorbance since, melanin, which is the pigment responsible for darker skin, absorbs UVB at the same wavelength as 7-dehydrocholesterol. Indeed, it turns out that fair-skinned people (who tend to live in colder and more northern climates) are more efficient at producing vitamin D than darker skinned people.
Vitamin D is really an underappreciated nutrient. It is essential for absorption of calcium, which is nearly ubiquitous in its usage throughout the body, from brain functioning to muscle contraction. Recent research has illuminated other uses for vitamin D, including regulation of genes associated with autoimmune diseases, cancers, and infection. One study in Germany found that participants (average age of 62) with low vitamin D levels are twice as likely to die, particularly of cardiovascular problems, in the following 8 years than those with the highest vitamin D levels.
Though it isn’t too important to us today, lactase persistence might have saved the populations of Neolithic people in Northern Europe. Its dose of fat and calories helped bump up energy stores while the calcium and vitamin D found in whole milk reaped significant nutritional benefits. Though there are still many questions surrounding the evolution of lactase persistence in sub-populations of humans, the selection of this phenotype is quite clear. Those with lactase persistence would have had supplemental nutrition that might have helped them survive the Northern European winters.