Sunday, December 10, 2006

Evolution in action
Or is it?
A surprisingly recent instance of human evolution has been detected among the peoples of East Africa. It is the ability to digest milk in adulthood, conferred by genetic changes that occurred as recently as 3,000 years ago, a team of geneticists has found.

The finding is a striking example of a cultural practice — the raising of dairy cattle — feeding back into the human genome. It also seems to be one of the first instances of convergent human evolution to be documented at the genetic level. ...

Throughout most of human history, the ability to digest lactose, the principal sugar of milk, has been switched off after weaning because there is no further need for the lactase enzyme that breaks the sugar apart. But when cattle were first domesticated 9,000 years ago and people later started to consume their milk as well as their meat, natural selection would have favored anyone with a mutation that kept the lactase gene switched on.

Such a mutation is known to have arisen among an early cattle-raising people, the Funnel Beaker culture, which flourished some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago in north-central Europe. People with a persistently active lactase gene have no problem digesting milk and are said to be lactose tolerant.

Almost all Dutch people and 99 percent of Swedes are lactose-tolerant, but the mutation becomes progressively less common in Europeans who live at increasing distance from the ancient Funnel Beaker region.

Geneticists wondered if the lactose tolerance mutation in Europeans, first identified in 2002, had arisen among pastoral peoples elsewhere. But it seemed to be largely absent from Africa, even though pastoral peoples there generally have some degree of tolerance.

A research team led by Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Maryland has now resolved much of the puzzle. After testing for lactose tolerance and genetic makeup among 43 ethnic groups of East Africa, she and her colleagues have found three new mutations, all independent of each other and of the European mutation, which keep the lactase gene permanently switched on.

The creationist approach to this should be to paraphrase Ben Franklin and view this as proof that there is a benevolent God and He wants us to have ice cream.

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