Real-Life X-Men: A Single Genetic Mutation May Have Turned Ancient Humans Into the World's Best Long-Distance Runners

Wednesday, 12 September 2018 - 12:26PM
Genetic Engineering
Wednesday, 12 September 2018 - 12:26PM
Real-Life X-Men: A Single Genetic Mutation May Have Turned Ancient Humans Into the World's Best Long-Distance Runners
< >
Image Credit: Unsplasg
Along with having the most developed brain among all animals on Earth and the distinction of creating both the atomic bomb and the Snuggie, humans hold another surprising title: the best long-distance runners on the planet. Human runners have even outrun horses in sanctioned races, which led to some really interesting bet payouts. Scientists have known that humans are superior endurance runners for years, but a new study may have isolated the gene that triggered humanity's transformation into nature's running machine.

According to researchers from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, a mutation occurred in humans about 2-3 million years ago that turned off the gene CMAH. This coincided with a period of transition for the species: humans were moving out of forests and into the African savannahs, as well as going through bodily changes, like developing larger sweat glands. All of this apparently led to humans gaining an edge as "persistence hunters," who were able to run down prey animals to exhaustion and hunt during the hottest parts of the day, when other predators were napping.

After experimenting with mice who lacked functioning CMAH genes, the researchers found that the mice (who were given treadmills and wheels to run on) displayed more endurance, stronger hind-limb muscles, and more developed capillaries, which provided them with more blood and oxygen. According to Ajit Varki, one of the senior authors on the new study: "...if the findings translate to humans, they may have provided early hominids with a selective advantage in their move from trees to becoming permanent hunter-gatherers on the open range."

However, the absence of CMAH may have its own drawbacks for humans—research has also connected it to higher risk of cancer and type 2 diabetes. Still, it's a fascinating example of how one small change can trigger massive changes in the body, like that 'zombie' gene in elephants that helps them fight cancer.

Science
Science News
Genetic Engineering