The evolutionary construction and magnification of the human brain

Our brains are 3 times the size of the chimp and more complex.  Now that we have the complete genome sequences of both (and other monkeys) it is possible to look for the protein coding genes which separate us.

First some terminology.  Not every species found since the divergence of man and chimp is our direct ancestor.  Many banches are extinct.  The whole group of species are called hominins [Nature vol. 422 pp. 849 – 857 ‘ 03 ].  Hominids are species in the path between us and the chimp — sort of a direct line of descent.  However the terminology is in flux and confusing and I’m not sure this is right.   But we do need some terminology to proceed.

Hominid Specific genes (HS genes) result which result from recent gene duplications in hominid/human genomes.  Gene duplication is a great way for evolution to work quickly.  Even if one gene is essential, messing with the other copy won’t be fatal.  HS genes include >20 gene families that are dynamically expressed during the formation of the human brain.  It was hard for me to find out just how many HS genes there are.

Here are some examples. The human-specific NOTCH2NL genes increase the self-renewal potential of human cortical progenitors (meaning more brain cell can result from them).  TBC1D3and ARGHAP11B, are involved in basal progenitor amplification (ditto).

A recent paper [ Neuron vol. 111 pp. 65 – 80 ’23 ] discusses CROCCP2 (you don’t want to know what the acronym stands for) which is one of several genes in this family with at least 6 copies in various hominid genomes.  However, CROCCP2 is a duplicate unique to man.   It is highly expressed during brain development and enhances outer Radial Glial Cell progenitor proliferation.

The mechanism by which this happens is detailed in the paper and involves the cilium found on every neuron, mTOR, IFT20 and others.

But that’s not the point here, fascinating although these mechanisms are.   We’re watching a series of at least 20 gene duplications with subsequent modifications build the brain that is unique to us over relatively rapid evolutionary times.  The split between man and chimp is thought to have happened only 8 million years ago.

What should we call this process?  Evolution?  The Creator in action? The Blind Watchmaker?   It is certainly is eerie to think about.  There are 17 more HS genes to go involving in building our brains remaining to be worked out.  Stay tuned

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