[not in handout, see intranet]

Ponting, C., & Jackson, A. P. (2005). Evolution of primary microcephaly genes and the enlargement of primate brains. Current Opinion in Genetics & Development, 15(3), 241-248.

Brain size, in relation to body size, has varied markedly during the evolution of mammals. In particular, a large cerebral cortex is a feature that distinguishes humans from our fellow primates. Such anatomical changes must have a basis in genetic alterations, but the molecular processes involved have yet to be defined. However, recent advances from the cloning of two human disease genes promise to make inroads in this important area. Microcephalin (MCPH1) and Abnormal spindle-like microcephaly associated (ASPM) are genes mutated in primary microcephaly, a human neurodevelopmental disorder. In this 'atavistic' condition, brain size is reduced in volume to a size comparable with that of early hominids. Hence, it has been proposed that these genes evolved adaptively with increasing primate brain size. Subsequent studies have lent weight to this hypothesis by showing that both genes have undergone positive selection during great ape evolution. Further functional characterisation of their proteins will contribute to an understanding of the molecular and evolutionary processes that have determined human brain size.

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Evans, P. D., Vallender, E. J., & Lahn, B. T. (2006). Molecular evolution of the brain size regulator genes CDK5RAP2 and CENPJ. Gene, 375, 75-79.

Primary microcephaly is a developmental defect of the brain characterized by severely reduced brain size but an absence of other overt abnormalities. Mutations in several loci have been linked to primary microcephaly. The underlying genes for two of these were recently identified as CDK5RAP2 and CENPJ. Here, we focus on CDK5RAP2 and show that the protein evolutionary rate of this gene is significantly higher in primates than rodents or carnivores. We further show that the evolutionary rate within primates is particularly high in the human and chimpanzee terminal branches. Thus, the pattern of molecular evolution seen in CDK5RAP2 appears to parallel, at least approximately, that seen in two other previously identified primary microcephaly genes, microcephalin and ASPM. We also briefly discuss CENPJ, which similarly exhibits higher rate of protein evolution in primates as compared to rodents and carnivores. Together, the evolutionary patterns of all four presently known primary microcephaly genes are consistent with the hypothesis that genes regulating brain size during development might also play a role in brain evolution in primates and especially humans.

Tang, B. L. (2006). Molecular genetic determinants of human brain size. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, 345(3), 911-916.

Cognitive skills such as tool use, syntactical languages, and self-awareness differentiate humans from other primates. The underlying basis for this cognitive difference has been widely associated with a high enceplialization quotient and an anatomically distinct, exceptionally large cerebral cortex. Investigations on congenital microcephaly had revealed several genes that affect mammalian brain size when mutated. At least four of these, microcephalin (MCPHI), abnormal spindle-like microcephaly-associated (ASPAI), cyclin-dependent kinase 5 regulatory associated protein 2 (CDK5RAP2), and centromere-associated protein J (CENPJ) are known to have undergone significant positive selection in the great apes and human lineages during primate evolution. MCPHI and ASPM both have very young single nucleotide polymorphism haplotypes associated with modern humans, and these genes are presumably still evolving in Homo sapiens. Microcephalin has a role in DNA damage response and regulation of cell cycle checkpoints. The other known microcephaly-associated genes encode microtubule-associated centrosomal proteins that might regulate neural progenitor cell division and cell number. Recent reports have also unveiled a previously unknown function of ephrins and Eph in the regulation of neural progenitor cell death with a consequential effect on brain size. Understanding the mechanism for developmental control of brain organogenesis by these genes, and others such as FOXP2, shall provide fresh perspectives on the evolution of human intelligence. (c) 2006 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.