"We're finding that genes that have more and less copies are having a profound effect on the way the body works," he says.
He thinks that in the case of this gene, the ability to get extra calories from starches may have helped humans grow our big brains (and here's another theory). While our closest cousins, chimpanzees, only have two copies of the amylase gene, humans can have as many as 15 copies.
"Meat is relatively rare. It's hard to come by as a food resource, so maybe our human ancestors started digging up these roots and tubers and such, and these are starchy food items which would provide a lot of sugar for our big brains," Dominy explains. "Unfortunately, there's [been] no evidence for it because these plant tissues are perishable-- they don’t preserve in the archaeological record-- and the tools you would use to dig them up, they're made of wood and they themselves would not preserve in the archaeological record."
"So, for us, this particular gene was sort of like the smoking gun. We could identify if natural selection has operated on this gene because it helps you digest starch. And this would imply, then, that here has been positive selection for eating starch in human evolution."
But in today's high-carb world, is that still an advantage?
|Starchy foods like bread are part of our staple diet today.|
"It's possible that those individuals with more copies, they may have had advantages 50-thousand years ago when times were tough and they had to resort to eating starchy foods," he says. "But in today's diet where we're eating a lot of refined sugars, it may make them susceptible to things like Type 2 diabetes."
That's a question for biomedical researchers, not genetic anthropologists, to noodle.
In fact, Dominy says, copy-number variability is now becoming a hot topic for health researchers. "Now the exciting thing is to look at copies and at people with particular medical conditions to see if there's a relationship."
This research was published in Nature Genetics, September 9, 2007 and funded by the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, Wenner-Gren Foundation, Department of Pathology, Brigham & Women's Hospital, the National Institutes of Health and the Wellcome Trust.