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evolutionary biology

New Technology Opens Evolutionary Window into Brain Development

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DNA runs across the top and bottom. Skulls show the evolution of man from left to right

One of the great mysteries in biology is how we humans ended up with such large, complex brains. In search of clues, researchers have spent years studying the protein-coding genes activated during neurodevelopment. But some answers may also be hiding in non-coding regions of the human genome, where sequences called regulatory elements increase or decrease the activity of genes.

A fascinating example involves a type of regulatory element called a human accelerated region (HAR). Although “human” is part of this element’s name, it turns out that the genomes of all vertebrates—not just humans—contain the DNA segments now designated as HARs.

In most organisms, HARs show a relatively low rate of mutation, which means these regulatory elements have been highly conserved across species throughout evolutionary time [1]. The big exception is Homo sapiens, in which HARs have exhibited a much higher rate of mutations.

The accelerated rate of HARs mutations observed in humans suggest that, over the course of very long periods of time, these genomic changes might have provided our species with some sort of evolutionary advantage. What might that be? Many have speculated the advantage might involve the brain because HARs are often associated with genes involved in neurodevelopment. Now, in a paper published in the journal Neuron, an NIH-supported team confirms that’s indeed the case [2].

In the new work, researchers found that about half of the HARs in the human genome influence the activity, or expression, of protein-coding genes in neural cells and tissues during the brain’s development [3]. The researchers say their study—the most comprehensive to date of the 3,171 HARs in the human genome—firmly establishes that this type of regulatory element helps to drive patterns of neurodevelopmental gene activity specific to humans.

Yet to be determined is precisely how HARs affect the development of the human brain. The quest to uncover these details will no doubt shed new light on fundamental questions about the brain, its billions of neurons, and their trillions of interconnections. For example, why does human neural development span decades, longer than the life spans of most primates and other mammals? Answering such questions could also reveal new clues into a range of cognitive and behavioral disorders. In fact, early research has already made tentative links between HARs and neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia [3].

The latest work was led by Kelly Girskis, Andrew Stergachis, and Ellen DeGennaro, all of whom were in the lab of Christopher Walsh while working on the project. An NIH grantee, Walsh is director of the Allen Discovery Center for Brain Evolution at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, which is supported by the Paul G. Allen Foundation Frontiers Group, and is an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Though HARs have been studied since 2006, one of the big challenges in systematically assessing them has been technological. The average length of a HAR is about 269 bases of DNA, but current technologies for assessing function can only easily analyze DNA molecules that span 150 bases or less.

Ryan Doan, who was then in the Walsh Lab, and his colleagues solved the problem by creating a new machine called CaptureMPRA. (MPRA is short for “massively parallel reporter assays.”) This technological advance cleverly barcodes HARs and, more importantly, makes it possible to analyze HARs up to about 500 bases in length.

Using CaptureMPRA technology in tandem with cell culture studies, researchers rolled up their sleeves and conducted comprehensive, full-sequence analyses of more than 3,000 HARs. In their initial studies, primarily in neural cells, they found nearly half of human HARs are active to drive gene expression in cell culture. Of those, 42 percent proved to have increased ability to enhance gene expression compared to their orthologues, or counterparts, in chimpanzees.

Next, the team integrated these data with an existing epigenetic dataset derived from developing human brain cells, as well as additional datasets generated from sorted brain cell types. They found that many HARs appeared to have the ability to increase the activity of protein-coding genes, while a smaller—but very significant—subset of the HARs appeared to be enhancing gene expression specifically in neural progenitor cells, which are responsible for making various neural cell types.

The data suggest that as the human HAR sequences mutated and diverged from other mammals, they increased their ability to enhance or sometimes suppress the activity of certain genes in neural cells. To illustrate this point, the researchers focused on two HARs that appear to interact specifically with a gene referred to as R17. This gene can have highly variable gene expression patterns not only in different human cell types, but also in cells from other vertebrates and non-vertebrates.

In the human cerebral cortex, the outermost part of the brain that’s responsible for complex behaviors, R17 is expressed only in neural progenitor cells and only at specific time points. The researchers found that R17 slows the progression of neural progenitor cells through the cell cycle. That might seem strange, given the billions of neurons that need to be made in the cortex. But it’s consistent with the biology. In the human, it takes more than 130 days for the cortex to complete development, compared to about seven days in the mouse.

Clearly, to learn more about how the human brain evolved, researchers will need to look for clues in many parts of the genome at once, including its non-coding regions. To help researchers navigate this challenging terrain, the Walsh team has created an online resource displaying their comprehensive HAR data. It will appear soon, under the name HAR Hub, on the University of California Santa Cruz Genome Browser.


[1] An RNA gene expressed during cortical development evolved rapidly in humans. Pollard KS, Salama SR, Lambert N, Lambot MA, Coppens S, Pedersen JS, Katzman S, King B, Onodera C, Siepel A, Kern AD, Dehay C, Igel H, Ares M Jr, Vanderhaeghen P, Haussler D. Nature. 2006 Sep 14;443(7108):167-72.

[2] Rewiring of human neurodevelopmental gene regulatory programs by human accelerated regions. Girskis KM, Stergachis AB, DeGennaro EM, Doan RN, Qian X, Johnson MB, Wang PP, Sejourne GM, Nagy MA, Pollina EA, Sousa AMM, Shin T, Kenny CJ, Scotellaro JL, Debo BM, Gonzalez DM, Rento LM, Yeh RC, Song JHT, Beaudin M, Fan J, Kharchenko PV, Sestan N, Greenberg ME, Walsh CA. Neuron. 2021 Aug 25:S0896-6273(21)00580-8.

[3] Mutations in human accelerated regions disrupt cognition and social behavior. Doan RN, Bae BI, Cubelos B, Chang C, Hossain AA, Al-Saad S, Mukaddes NM, Oner O, Al-Saffar M, Balkhy S, Gascon GG; Homozygosity Mapping Consortium for Autism, Nieto M, Walsh CA. Cell. 2016 Oct 6;167(2):341-354.


Christopher Walsh Laboratory (Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School)

The Paul G. Allen Foundation Frontiers Group (Seattle)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Cancer Institute

An Evolutionary Guide to New Immunotherapies

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Credit: Dave Titensor, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

One of the best ways to learn how something works is to understand how it’s built. How it came to be. That’s true not only if you play a guitar or repair motorcycle engines, but also if you study the biological systems that make life possible. Evolutionary studies, comparing the development of these systems across animals and organisms, are now leading to many unexpected biological discoveries and promising possibilities for preventing and treating human disease.

While there are many evolutionary questions to ask, Brenda Bass, a distinguished biochemist at University of Utah, Salt Lake City, has set her sights on a particularly profound one: How has innate immunity evolved through the millennia in all living things, including humans? Innate immunity is the immune system’s frontline defense, the first responders that take control of an emerging infectious situation and, if needed, signal for backup.

Exploring the millennia for clues about innate immunity takes a special team, and Bass has assembled a talented one. It includes her Utah colleague Nels Elde, a geneticist; immunologist Dan Stetson, University of Washington, Seattle; and biochemist Jane Jackman, Ohio State University, Columbus.

With a 2020 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, this hard-working team will embark on studies looking back at 450 million years of evolution: the point in time when animals diverged to develop very distinct methods of innate immune defense [1]. The team members hope to uncover new possibilities encoded in the innate immune system, especially those that might be latent but still workable. The researchers will then explore whether their finds can be repurposed not only to boost our body’s natural response to external threats but also to internal threats like cancer.

Bass brings a unique perspective to the project. As a postdoc in the 1980s, she stumbled upon a whole new class of enzymes, called ADARs, that edit RNA [2]. Their function was mysterious at the time. It turns out that ADARs specifically edit a molecule called double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). When viruses infect cells in animals, including humans, they make dsRNA, which the innate immune system detects as a sign that a cell has been invaded.

It also turns out that animal cells make their own dsRNA. Over the years, Bass and her lab have identified thousands of dsRNAs made in animal cells—in fact, a significant number of human genes produce dsRNA [3]. Also interesting, ADARs are crucial to marking our own dsRNA as “self” to avoid triggering an immune response when we don’t need it [4].

Bass and others have found that evolution has produced dramatic differences in the biochemical pathways powering the innate immune system. In vertebrate animals, dsRNA leads to release of the immune chemical interferon, a signaling pathway that invertebrate species don’t have. Instead, in response to detecting dsRNA from an invader, and repelling it, worms and other invertebrates trigger a gene-silencing pathway known as RNA interference, or RNAi.

With the new funding, Bass and team plan to mix and match immune strategies from simple and advanced species, across evolutionary time, to craft an entirely new set of immune tools to fight disease. The team will also build new types of targeted immunotherapies based on the principles of innate immunity. Current immunotherapies, which harness a person’s own immune system to fight disease, target infections, autoimmune disorders, and cancer. But they work through our second-line adaptive immune response, which is a biological system unique to vertebrates.

Bass and her team will first hunt for more molecules like ADARs: innate immune checkpoints, as they refer to them. The name comes from a functional resemblance to the better-known adaptive immune checkpoints PD-1 and CTLA-4, which sparked a revolution in cancer immunotherapy. The team will run several screens that sort molecules successful at activating innate immune responses—both in invertebrates and in mammals—hoping to identify a range of durable new immune switches that evolution skipped over but that might be repurposed today.

Another intriguing direction for this research stems from the observation that decreasing normal levels of ADARs in tumors kickstarts innate immune responses that kill cancer cells [5]. Along these lines, the scientists plan to test newly identified immune switches to look for novel ways to fight cancer where existing approaches have not worked.

Evolution is the founding principle for all of biology—organisms learn from what works to improve their ability to survive. In this case, research to re-examine such lessons and apply them for new uses may help transform bygone evolution into a therapeutic revolution!


[1] Evolution of adaptive immunity from transposable elements combined with innate immune systems. Koonin EV, Krupovic M. Nat Rev Genet. 2015 Mar;16(3):184-192.

[2] A developmentally regulated activity that unwinds RNA duplexes. Bass BL, Weintraub H. Cell. 1987 Feb 27;48(4):607-613.

[3] Mapping the dsRNA World. Reich DP, Bass BL. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 2019 Mar 1;11(3):a035352.

[4] To protect and modify double-stranded RNA – the critical roles of ADARs in development, immunity and oncogenesis. Erdmann EA, Mahapatra A, Mukherjee P, Yang B, Hundley HA. Crit Rev Biochem Mol Biol. 2021 Feb;56(1):54-87.

[5] Loss of ADAR1 in tumours overcomes resistance to immune checkpoint blockade. Ishizuka JJ, Manguso RT, Cheruiyot CK, Bi K, Panda A, et al. Nature. 2019 Jan;565(7737):43-48.


Bass Lab (University of Utah, Salt Lake City)

Elde Lab (University of Utah)

Jackman Lab (Ohio State University, Columbus)

Stetson Lab (University of Washington, Seattle)

Bass/Elde/Jackman/Stetson Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award Program (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute

Genomic Study Points to Natural Origin of COVID-19

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COVID-19 Update

No matter where you go online these days, there’s bound to be discussion of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Some folks are even making outrageous claims that the new coronavirus causing the pandemic was engineered in a lab and deliberately released to make people sick. A new study debunks such claims by providing scientific evidence that this novel coronavirus arose naturally.

The reassuring findings are the result of genomic analyses conducted by an international research team, partly supported by NIH. In their study in the journal Nature Medicine, Kristian Andersen, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA; Robert Garry, Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans; and their colleagues used sophisticated bioinformatic tools to compare publicly available genomic data from several coronaviruses, including the new one that causes COVID-19.

The researchers began by homing in on the parts of the coronavirus genomes that encode the spike proteins that give this family of viruses their distinctive crown-like appearance. (By the way, “corona” is Latin for “crown.”) All coronaviruses rely on spike proteins to infect other cells. But, over time, each coronavirus has fashioned these proteins a little differently, and the evolutionary clues about these modifications are spelled out in their genomes.

The genomic data of the new coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 show that its spike protein contains some unique adaptations. One of these adaptations provides special ability of this coronavirus to bind to a specific protein on human cells called angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE2). A related coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in humans also seeks out ACE2.

Existing computer models predicted that the new coronavirus would not bind to ACE2 as well as the SARS virus. However, to their surprise, the researchers found that the spike protein of the new coronavirus actually bound far better than computer predictions, likely because of natural selection on ACE2 that enabled the virus to take advantage of a previously unidentified alternate binding site. Researchers said this provides strong evidence that that new virus was not the product of purposeful manipulation in a lab. In fact, any bioengineer trying to design a coronavirus that threatened human health probably would never have chosen this particular conformation for a spike protein.

The researchers went on to analyze genomic data related to the overall molecular structure, or backbone, of the new coronavirus. Their analysis showed that the backbone of the new coronavirus’s genome most closely resembles that of a bat coronavirus discovered after the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, the region that binds ACE2 resembles a novel virus found in pangolins, a strange-looking animal sometimes called a scaly anteater. This provides additional evidence that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 almost certainly originated in nature. If the new coronavirus had been manufactured in a lab, scientists most likely would have used the backbones of coronaviruses already known to cause serious diseases in humans.

So, what is the natural origin of the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic? The researchers don’t yet have a precise answer. But they do offer two possible scenarios.

In the first scenario, as the new coronavirus evolved in its natural hosts, possibly bats or pangolins, its spike proteins mutated to bind to molecules similar in structure to the human ACE2 protein, thereby enabling it to infect human cells. This scenario seems to fit other recent outbreaks of coronavirus-caused disease in humans, such as SARS, which arose from cat-like civets; and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which arose from camels.

The second scenario is that the new coronavirus crossed from animals into humans before it became capable of causing human disease. Then, as a result of gradual evolutionary changes over years or perhaps decades, the virus eventually gained the ability to spread from human-to-human and cause serious, often life-threatening disease.

Either way, this study leaves little room to refute a natural origin for COVID-19. And that’s a good thing because it helps us keep focused on what really matters: observing good hygiene, practicing social distancing, and supporting the efforts of all the dedicated health-care professionals and researchers who are working so hard to address this major public health challenge.

Finally, next time you come across something about COVID-19 online that disturbs or puzzles you, I suggest going to FEMA’s new Coronavirus Rumor Control web site. It may not have all the answers to your questions, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction in helping to distinguish rumors from facts.

[1] The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Andersen KG, Rambaut A, Lipkin WI, Holmes EC, Garry RF. Nat Med, 17 March 2020. [Epub ahead of publication]


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

COVID-19, MERS & SARS (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Andersen Lab (Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA)

Robert Garry (Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans)

Coronavirus Rumor Control (FEMA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Human Genome Research Institute

Finding Brain Circuits Tied to Alertness

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Everybody knows that it’s important to stay alert behind the wheel or while out walking on the bike path. But our ability to react appropriately to sudden dangers is influenced by whether we feel momentarily tired, distracted, or anxious. How is it that the brain can transition through such different states of consciousness while performing the same routine task, even as its basic structure and internal wiring remain unchanged?

A team of NIH-funded researchers may have found an important clue in zebrafish, a popular organism for studying how the brain works. Using a powerful new method that allowed them to find and track brain circuits tied to alertness, the researchers discovered that this mental state doesn’t work like an on/off switch. Rather, alertness involves several distinct brain circuits working together to bring the brain to attention. As shown in the video above that was taken at cellular resolution, different types of neurons (green) secrete different kinds of chemical messengers across the zebrafish brain to affect the transition to alertness. The messengers shown are: serotonin (red), acetylcholine (blue-green), and dopamine and norepinephrine (yellow).

What’s also fascinating is the researchers found that many of the same neuronal cell types and brain circuits are essential to alertness in zebrafish and mice, despite the two organisms being only distantly related. That suggests these circuits are conserved through evolution as an early fight-or-flight survival behavior essential to life, and they are therefore likely to be important for controlling alertness in people too. If correct, it would tell us where to look in the brain to learn about alertness not only while doing routine stuff but possibly for understanding dysfunctional brain states, ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Out of Africa: DNA Analysis Points to a Single Major Exodus

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View of Africa from space

Credit: NASA

If you go back far enough, the ancestors of all people trace to Africa. That much is clear. We are all Africans. But there’s been considerable room for debate about exactly when and how many times modern humans made their way out of Africa to take up residence in distant locations throughout the world. It’s also unclear what evolutionary or other factors might have driven our human ancestors to set off on such a perilous and uncertain journey (or journeys) in the first place.

By analyzing 787 newly sequenced complete human genomes representing more than 280 diverse and understudied populations, three new studies—two of which received NIH funding—now help to fill in some of those missing pages of our evolutionary history. The genomic evidence suggests that the earliest human inhabitants of Eurasia came from Africa and began to diverge genetically at least 50,000 years ago. While the new studies differ somewhat in their conclusions, the findings also lend support to the notion that our modern human ancestors dispersed out of Africa primarily in a single migratory event. If an earlier and ultimately failed voyage occurred, it left little trace in the genomes of people alive today.

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