You need some serious molecular biological chops to understand why primates such as ourselves have large brains. For this you need organic chemistry. Or do you? Yes and no. Yes to understand how the players are built and how they interact. No because it can be explained without any chemistry at all. In fact, the mechanism is even clearer that way.
It’s an exercise in pure logic. David Hilbert, one of the major mathematicians at the dawn of the 20th century famously said about geometry — “One must be able to say at all times–instead of points, straight lines, and planes–tables, chairs, and beer mugs”. The relationships between the objects of geometry were far more crucial to him than the objects themselves. We’ll take the same tack here.
So instead of the nucleotides Uridine (U), Adenine (A), Guanine (G), Cytosine (C), we’re going to talk about lock and key and hook and eye.
We’re going to talk about long chains of these four items. The order is crucial Two long chains of them can pair up only only if there are segments on each where the locks on one pair with the keys on the other and the hooks with the eyes. How many possible combinations of the four are there on a chain of 20 — just 4^20 or 2^40 = 1,099,511,621,776. So to get two randomly chosen chains to pair up exactly is pretty unlikely, unless in some way you or the blind Watchmaker chose them to do so.
Now you need a Turing machine to take a long string of these 4 items and turn it into a protein. In the case of the crucial Notch protein the string of locks, keys, hooks and eyes contains at least 5,000 of them, and their order is important, just as the order of letters in a word is crucial for its meaning (consider united and untied).
The cell has tons of such Turing machines (called ribosomes) and lots of copies of strings coding for Notch (called Notch mRNAs).
The more Notch protein around in the developing brain, the more the proliferating precursors to neurons proliferate before differentiating into neurons, resulting in a bigger brain.
The Notch string doesn’t all code for protein, at one end is a stretch of locks, keys, hooks and eyes which bind other strings, which when bound cause the Notch string to be degraded, mean less Notch and a smaller brain. The other strings are about 20 long and are called microRNAs.
So to get more Notch and a bigger brain, you need to decrease the number of microRNAs specifically binding to the Notch string. One particular microRNA (called miR-143-3p) has it in for the Notch string. So how did primates get rid of miR-143-3p they have an insert (unique to them) in another string which contains 16 binding sites for miR-143-3p. So this string called lincND essentially acts as a sponge for miR-143-3p meaning it can’t get to the Notch string, meaning that neuronal precursor cells proliferate more, and primate brains get bigger.
So can you forget organic chemistry if you want to understand why we have big brains? In the above sense you can. Your understanding won’t be particularly rich, but it will be at a level where chemical explanation is powerless.
No amount of understanding of polyribonucleotide double helices will tell you why a particular choice out of the 1,099,511,621,776 possible strings of 20 will be important. Literally we have moved from physicality to the realm of pure ideas, crossing the Cartesian dichotomy in the process.
Here’s a copy of the original post with lots of chemistry in it and all the references you need to get the molecular biological chops you’ll need.
Why our brains are large: the elegance of its molecular biology
Primates have much larger brains in proportion to their body size than other mammals. Here’s why. The mechanism is incredibly elegant. Unfortunately, you must put a sizable chunk of recent molecular biology under your belt before you can comprehend it. Anyone can listen to Mozart without knowing how to read or write music. Not so here.
I doubt that anyone can start from ground zero and climb all the way up, but here is all the background you need to comprehend what follows. Start here — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/07/07/molecular-biology-survival-guide-for-chemists-i-dna-and-protein-coding-gene-structure/
and follow the links (there are 5 more articles).
Also you should be conversant with competitive endogenous RNA (ceRNA) — here’s a link — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/why-drug-discovery-is-so-hard-reason-24-is-the-3-untranslated-region-of-every-protein-a-cerna/
Also you should understand what microRNAs are — we’re still discovering all the things they do — here’s the background you need — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/why-drug-discovery-is-so-hard-reason-26-were-discovering-new-players-all-the-time/weith.
Now we must delve into the embryology of the brain, something few chemists or nonbiological type scientists have dealt with.
You’ve probably heard of the term ‘water on the brain’. This refers to enlargement of the ventricular system, a series of cavities in all our brains. In the fetus, all nearly all our neurons are formed from cells called neuronal precursor cells (NPCs) lining the fetal ventricle. Once formed they migrate to their final positions.
Each NPC has two choices — Choice #1 –divide into two NPCs, or Choice #2 — divide into an NPC and a daughter cell which will divide no further, but which will mature, migrate and become an adult neuron. So to get a big brain make NPCs adopt choice #1.
This is essentially a choice between proliferation and maturation. It doesn’t take many doublings of a NPC to eventually make a lot of neurons. Naturally cancer biologists are very interested in the mechanism of this choice.
Well to make a long story short, there is a protein called NOTCH — vitally important in embryology and in cancer biology which, when present, causes NPCs to make choice #1. So to make a big brain keep Notch around.
Well we know that some microRNAs bind to the mRNA for NOTCH which helps speed its degradation, meaning less NOTCH protein. One such microRNA is called miR-143-3p.
We also know that the brain contains a lncRNA called lncND (ND for Neural Development). The incredible elegance is that there is a primate specific insert in lncND which contains 16 (yes 16) binding sites for miR-143-3p. So lncND acts as a sponge for miR-143-3p meaning it can’t bind to the mRNA for NOTCH, meaning that there is more NOTCH around. Is this elegant or what. Let’s hear it for the Blind Watchmaker, assuming you have the faith to believe in such things.
Fortunately lncND is confined to the brain, otherwise we’d all be dead of cancer.
Should you want to read about this, here’s the reference [ Neuron vol. 90 pp. 1141 – 1143, 1255 – 1262 ’16 ] where there’s a lot more.
Historically, this was one of the criticisms of the Star Wars Missile Defense — the Russians wouldn’t send over a few missles, they’d send hundreds which would act as sponges to our defense. Whether or not attempting to put Star Wars in place led to Russia’s demise is debatable, but a society where it was a crime to own a copying machine, could never compete technically to produce such a thing.