Newly published research from Dr David Ferrier of the School of Biology and scientists at the University of Dundee, suggests that an evolutionary leap made at the bottom of the ocean over 500 million years ago could give new insights into the causes of human diseases such as diabetes, cancer and neurological disorders.
Vertebrates emerged around 500 million years ago from a massive evolutionary upheaval that involved two successive doublings in the amount of DNA in a marine invertebrate. These dramatic events triggered the evolution of a new animal, which became the ancestor of the backboned fishes, birds, reptiles and mammals, including humans.
The research proposes that these ancient DNA doublings boosted internal communication systems. The result is that cells in our bodies are far better at integrating information than even the smartest smartphones. Such complexity is needed to coordinate the actions of our elaborate human bodies. The downside is that communication breakdowns cause diabetes, cancer and neurological disorders.
Researchers have been able to compare the human genome to the recently decoded genetic sequence of the invertebrate amphioxus, a tiny creature still found in our seas and which can be regarded as a 'distant cousin’ to our species. The ancestors of amphioxus did not go through the two rounds of genome duplication and so is still quite similar to the original spineless creature.
According to Dr Ferrier, “Amphioxus is proving to be an excellent animal with which to understand various aspects of the evolution of vertebrate genomes, including the human genome. This is particularly true for families of genes that increased in size and complexity during vertebrate evolution.
“Analysis of these gene families from an evolutionary point of view helps to navigate through the increasingly large data sets on protein interactions in a more focused and productive way, speeding the way towards establishing the links between particular proteins and diseases as well as highlighting new potential disease targets." [full article][press release]