Postdoc, Universidad del Valle
Adaptation to our environment shaped our evolution and may hold the key to improve medicine
In 10 seconds? Since the appearance of humans in Africa our species has adapted to different environmental pressures throughout the globe thanks partly to mutations and natural selection, and recent studies suggest that these mutations may still be playing a role in our adaptation to the environment and susceptibility to disease.
But I thought that cultural evolution replaced biological evolution? Indeed, our cultural development has erased some of the pressures for natural selection, but thousands of years ago, before the invention of central heating or medicine, biological adaptation was essential for successful colonization of certain regions, or even to help us cope with our cultural changes.
So our culture shaped our biology? Partly, for example for drinking milk. Mammals usually loose their capability of digesting lactose during adulthood, but around 9000 years ago humans started keeping cattle and drinking milk in southwest Asia, and around the same time a mutation appeared, which increases the production of lactase (the enzyme that allows lactose digestion) during adulthood, and it is still present in Europeans.
What other type of adaptation did we need? Well, during their exploration of the globe, humans had to adapt to cold weather (Europe and the north of Asia), high altitude and low oxygen (Tibet, or the Andes in South America), infectious disease (like malaria in Africa), etc. And recent studies suggest that several mutations helped to adapt to those particular environments. For instance, I am currently studying mitochondrial DNA mutations in native Americans that could allow adaptation to lower oxygen availability in the Andes (where oxygen levels are 40% lower than at sea level).
And how could these mutations affect our susceptibility to disease? These mutations allowed adaptation to specific situations, but in our modern world, where our way of life has changed and people move thousands of miles in hours, these situations have also changed and mutations that were adaptive may become maladaptive, facilitating the appearance of disease, such as obesity or diabetes. So by studying these “adaptive” mutations not only we learn about our evolution and how we adapt to our environment (like the climatic changes global heating is causing) but also allows us to understand disease and develop a more personalized medicine, taking into account the specifics of every patient and increasing their chances of a long and healthy life.
Abstract: Maintaining a balance between ATP synthesis and heat generation is crucial for adapting to changes in climate. Variation in the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which encodes 13 subunits of the respiratory chain complexes, may contribute to climate adaptation by regulating thermogenesis and the use of bioenergy. However, studies looking for a relationship between mtDNA haplogroups and climate have obtained mixed results, leaving unresolved the role of mtDNA in climate adaptation. Since mtDNA content can regulate human bioenergy processes and is known to influence many physiological traits and diseases, it is possible that mtDNA content contributes to climate adaptation in human populations. Here, we analyze the distribution of mtDNA content among 27 Chinese ethnic populations residing across China and find a significant association between mtDNA content and climate, with northern populations having significantly higher mtDNA content than southern populations. Functional studies have shown that high mtDNA content correlates with an increase in the expression of energy metabolism enzymes, which may accelerate thermogenesis. This suggests that the significantly higher mtDNA content observed in northern populations may confer a selective advantage in adapting to colder northern climates.
Pub.: 21 Nov '13, Pinned: 09 Sep '17
Abstract: A phylogenetic analysis of 1125 global human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences permitted positioning of all nucleotide substitutions according to their order of occurrence. The relative frequency and amino acid conservation of internal branch replacement mutations was found to increase from tropical Africa to temperate Europe and arctic northeastern Siberia. Particularly highly conserved amino acid substitutions were found at the roots of multiple mtDNA lineages from higher latitudes. These same lineages correlate with increased propensity for energy deficiency diseases as well as longevity. Thus, specific mtDNA replacement mutations permitted our ancestors to adapt to more northern climates, and these same variants are influencing our health today.
Pub.: 13 Jan '04, Pinned: 09 Sep '17
Abstract: Sherpa population is an ethnic group living in south mountainside of Himalayas for hundreds of years. They are famous as extraordinary mountaineers and guides, considered as a good example for successful adaptation to low oxygen environment in Tibetan highlands. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) variations might be important in the highland adaption given its role in coding core subunits of oxidative phosphorylation in mitochondria. In this study, we sequenced the complete mtDNA genomes of 76 unrelated Sherpa individuals. Generally, Sherpa mtDNA haplogroup constitution was close to Tibetan populations. However, we found three lineage expansions in Sherpas, two of which (C4a3b1 and A4e3a) were Sherpa-specific. Both lineage expansions might begin within the past hundreds of years. Especially, nine individuals carry identical Haplogroup C4a3b1. According to the history of Sherpas and Bayesian skyline plot, we constructed various demographic models and found out that it is unlikely for these lineage expansions to occur in neutral models especially for C4a3b1. Nonsynonymous mutations harbored in C4a3b1 (G3745A) and A4e3a (T4216C) are both ND1 mutants (A147T and Y304H, respectively). Secondary structure predictions showed that G3745A were structurally closing to other pathogenic mutants, whereas T4216C itself was reported as the primary mutation for Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy. Thus, we propose that these mutations had certain effect on Complex I function and might be important in the high altitude adaptation for Sherpa people.
Pub.: 05 Sep '13, Pinned: 09 Sep '17
Abstract: The distinction between mild pathogenic mtDNA mutations and population polymorphisms can be ambiguous because both are homoplasmic, alter conserved functions, and correlate with disease. One possible explanation for this ambiguity is that the same variant may have different consequences in different contexts. The NADH dehydrogenase subunit 1 (ND1) nucleotide 3394 T > C (Y30H) variant is such a case. This variant has been associated with Leber hereditary optic neuropathy and it reduces complex I activity and cellular respiration between 7% and 28% on the Asian B4c and F1 haplogroup backgrounds. However, complex I activity between B4c and F1 mtDNAs, which harbor the common 3394T allele, can also differ by 30%. In Asia, the 3394C variant is most commonly associated with the M9 haplogroup, which is rare at low elevations but increases in frequency with elevation to an average of 25% of the Tibetan mtDNAs (odds ratio = 23.7). In high-altitude Tibetan and Indian populations, the 3394C variant occurs on five different macrohaplogroup M haplogroup backgrounds and is enriched on the M9 background in Tibet and the C4a4 background on the Indian Deccan Plateau (odds ratio = 21.9). When present on the M9 background, the 3394C variant is associated with a complex I activity that is equal to or higher than that of the 3394T variant on the B4c and F1 backgrounds. Hence, the 3394C variant can either be deleterious or beneficial depending on its haplogroup and environmental context. Thus, this mtDNA variant fulfills the criteria for a common variant that predisposes to a "complex" disease.
Pub.: 21 Apr '12, Pinned: 09 Sep '17
Abstract: Human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) shows extensive within-population sequence variability. Many studies suggest that mtDNA variants may be associated with ageing or diseases, although mechanistic evidence at the molecular level is lacking. Mitochondrial replacement has the potential to prevent transmission of disease-causing oocyte mtDNA. However, extension of this technology requires a comprehensive understanding of the physiological relevance of mtDNA sequence variability and its match with the nuclear-encoded mitochondrial genes. Studies in conplastic animals allow comparison of individuals with the same nuclear genome but different mtDNA variants, and have provided both supporting and refuting evidence that mtDNA variation influences organismal physiology. However, most of these studies did not confirm the conplastic status, focused on younger animals, and did not investigate the full range of physiological and phenotypic variability likely to be influenced by mitochondria. Here we systematically characterized conplastic mice throughout their lifespan using transcriptomic, proteomic, metabolomic, biochemical, physiological and phenotyping studies. We show that mtDNA haplotype profoundly influences mitochondrial proteostasis and reactive oxygen species generation, insulin signalling, obesity, and ageing parameters including telomere shortening and mitochondrial dysfunction, resulting in profound differences in health longevity between conplastic strains.
Pub.: 08 Jul '16, Pinned: 09 Sep '17
Abstract: Environmental adaptation, predisposition to common diseases, and, potentially, speciation may all be linked through the adaptive potential of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) alterations of bioenergetics. This Perspective synthesizes evidence that human mtDNA variants may be adaptive or deleterious depending on environmental context and proposes that the accrual of mtDNA variation could contribute to animal speciation via adaptation to marginal environments.
Pub.: 26 Sep '15, Pinned: 09 Sep '17
Abstract: Mitochondrial DNAs (mtDNAs) of 54 Tibetans residing at altitudes ranging from 3,000-4,500 m were amplified by polymerase chain reaction (PCR), examined by high-resolution restriction endonuclease analysis, and compared with those previously described in 10 other Asian and Siberian populations. This comparison revealed that more than 50% of Asian mtDNAs belong to a unique mtDNA lineage which is found only among Mongoloids, suggesting that this lineage most likely originated in Asia at an early stage of the human colonization of that continent. Within the Tibetan mtDNAs, sets of additional linked polymorphic sites defined seven minor lineages of related mtDNA haplotypes (haplogroups). The frequency and distribution of these haplogroups in modern Asian populations are supportive of previous genetic evidence that Tibetans, although located in southern Asia, share common ancestral origins with northern Mongoloid populations. This analysis of Tibetan mtDNAs also suggests that mtDNA mutations are unlikely to play a major role in the adaptation of Tibetans to high altitudes.
Pub.: 01 Feb '94, Pinned: 09 Sep '17
Abstract: Because modern humans originated in Africa and have adapted to diverse environments, African populations have high levels of genetic and phenotypic diversity. Thus, genomic studies of diverse African ethnic groups are essential for understanding human evolutionary history and how this leads to differential disease risk in all humans. Comparative studies of genetic diversity within and between African ethnic groups creates an opportunity to reconstruct some of the earliest events in human population history and are useful for identifying patterns of genetic variation that have been influenced by recent natural selection. Here we describe what is currently known about genetic variation and evolutionary history of diverse African ethnic groups. We also describe examples of recent natural selection in African genomes and how these data are informative for understanding the frequency of many genetic traits, including those that cause disease susceptibility in African populations and populations of recent African descent.
Pub.: 06 Jul '14, Pinned: 09 Sep '17
Abstract: Obesity is a leading risk factor for a variety of metabolic diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Although in its simplest terms, obesity may be thought of as a consequence of excessive caloric intake and sedentary lifestyle, it is also evident that individual propensity for weight gain can vary. The etiology of individual susceptibility to obesity seems to be complex-involving a combination of environmental-genetic interactions. Herein, we suggest that the mitochondrion plays a major role in influencing individual susceptibility to this disease via mitochondrial-nuclear interaction processes and that environmentally influenced selection events for mitochondrial function that conveyed increased reproductive and survival success during the global establishment of human populations during prehistoric times can influence individual susceptibility to weight gain and obesity.
Pub.: 01 Oct '13, Pinned: 09 Sep '17