Friday, April 13, 2012

Fat metabolism aided evolution of the human brain

Our brains are arguably one of the most wondrous results of billions of years of evolution, which is why scientists are devoting a lot of resources to uncover how our capabilities of thought have developed. A recent study performed by Uppsala University revealed that the way we metabolize certain fats has in the past aided the way our brains evolved our extraordinary features. A previous study, performed by universities in Manchester and Barcelona, already showed how our skull shape contributed to brain evolution.

Scientists know that humans in the distant past somehow gained the capability to produce Omega 3 and 6 compounds from fatty foods. The reason is unknown, but it must have been around 300.000 years ago that our genes developed the necessary blueprint for their production. At the Uppsala University, researchers have concluded that this gave us an advantage in evolution, and lead to the development of our modern brains. 

What they discovered is that humans have a genetic variant for the enzymes that produce Omega 3 and 6, when compared to chimpanzees and other monkeys which we share an evolutionary ancestor with. Even extinct species in the 'Homo' genus such as neanderthalensis did not have this particular variant, which enables us to increase the production of said fatty acids from the food we consume. 

Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids protect us from cardiovascular diseases and have other health benefits. They are said to be essential for normal metabolism, which immediately explains why increased enzymatic production leads to increased chance of survival. As our brains require a high amount of energy, maintaining normal metabolism in situations with limited food conditions is beneficial for further development. Scientists hypothesize that this gave use the advantage to evolve our brains beyond those of monkeys or other hominids.

The fact that Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are beneficial for our health is widely known. Many people consume food supplements containing these compounds on a daily basis, much like vitamin pills. Because of its fat contents, food specialists also recommend regular consumption of fatty fish. 
Omega 3 capsules.
Fatty acid metabolism provides another clue to the mysteries of our past. By looking at fossil records, protein evolution and tracking genetic changes, we are continuously increasing our knowledge about how the modern human beings like ourselves came to be. We are sitting at the top of billions of years of evolution, where billions of different species have struggled for existence. The aforementioned study provides another piece of the puzzle that explains why we are here. 

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