Skip to main content

human evolution

New Technology Opens Evolutionary Window into Brain Development

Posted on by

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

Genome Data from Africa Reveal Millions of New Variants

Posted on by

H2Africa logo
Credit: Human Heredity and Health in Africa Initiative

The first Homo sapiens emerged in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago. We are all descended from that common pool of ancestors. Put another way, we are all Africans. While it’s not possible to study the DNA of these vanished original human populations, it is possible to study the genetic material of today’s African peoples to learn more about the human genome and its evolution over time. The degree of genetic diversity in Africa is greater than anywhere else in the world.

Progress continues to be made in this important area of genomic research. The latest step forward is a study just published in the journal Nature that analyzes more than 400 complete human genomes, including 50 distinct groups of people from 13 African countries. This work has uncovered about 3.4 million unique gene variants that had never before been described, greatly expanding our knowledge of human genetic variation and its implications for health and disease.

This work is the latest from the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) Initiative , which I helped establish a decade ago. This partnership between NIH, the Wellcome Trust, and the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) seeks to train a new generation of African scientists in genomic science and other disciplines, while conducting state-of-the-art health research on the African continent. The hope is to help these scientists use their new knowledge to improve human health in Africa and to help fill significant gaps in our knowledge of the diversity within human genomes.

The new study was led by Zané Lombard, the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa; Neil Hanchard, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston; and Adebowale Adeyemo, NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, Bethesda, MD. It also included more than 50 other H3Africa data providers and data analysts from across Africa and around the world.

These researchers sequenced and analyzed the genomes of 426 individuals, almost all from studies and countries within the H3Africa Consortium, the network of NIH and Wellcome Trust-funded research sites in Africa. These individuals were carefully selected to provide broad coverage of the diverse landscape of African genomic variation. They also included many populations that hadn’t been studied at the genetic level before. The team focused its attention on single-letter differences, also known as single nucleotide variants (SNVs), located across the 3 billion DNA letters of the human genome.

All told, the researchers observed more than 31 million confirmed SNVs. Of the 3.4 million newly discovered SNVs, most turned up in the genomes of individuals from previously unstudied African ethnic groups with their own distinct languages. Even among SNVs that had been previously reported, several were found much more often than in other populations. That’s important because medical geneticists often include information about frequency in deciding whether a gene variant is a likely cause of rare disease. So, this more complete picture of normal genetic variation will be valuable for diagnosing such genetic conditions around the globe.

The researchers also found more than 100 regions of the genome where the pattern of genetic variation was suggestive of underlying variants that were evolutionarily favored at some time in the past. Sixty-two of those chromosomal locations weren’t previously known to be under such strong natural selection in human populations. Interestingly, those selected regions were found to contain genes associated with viral immunity, DNA repair, reproduction, and metabolism, or occurred close to variants that have been associated with conditions such as uterine fibroids and chronic kidney disease.

The findings suggest that viral infections, such as outbreaks of Ebola, yellow fever, and Lassa fever, may have played an important role over centuries in driving genetic differences on the African continent. The data also point to the possibility of human adaptation to differences across the African continent in local environments and diets, and these adaptations could be relevant to common diseases and traits we see now.

The researchers used the data to help gain insight into past migrations of human populations. The genetic data revealed complex patterns of ancestral mixing within and between groups. It also uncovered how distinct groups likely moved large distances across Africa in the past, going back hundreds to thousands of years. The findings also offered a more complete picture of the timing and extent of the migration of speakers of Africa’s most common language group (Bantu) as they moved from West Africa to the southern and eastern reaches of the continent—a defining event in the genetic history of Africa.

There’s still much more to learn about the diversity of human genomes, and a need for continued studies, including many more individuals representing more distinct groups in Africa. Indeed, H3Africa now consists of 51 projects all across the continent, focused on population-based genomic studies of many common health conditions, from heart disease to tuberculosis. As the cradle of all humanity, Africa has much to offer genomic research in the years ahead that will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications for people living in all parts of our planet.


[1] High-depth African genomes inform human migration and health. Choudhury A et al. 2020 Oct;586(7831):741-748.


Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) (NIH)

H3Africa (University of Cape Town, South Africa)

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

Happy New Year: Looking Back at 2016 Research Highlights

Posted on by

Science Breakthroughs of the Year 2016Happy New Year! While everyone was busy getting ready for the holidays, the journal Science announced its annual compendium of scientific Breakthroughs of the Year. If you missed it, the winner for 2016 was the detection of gravitational waves—tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime created by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago! It’s an incredible discovery, and one that Albert Einstein predicted a century ago.

Among the nine other advances that made the first cut for Breakthrough of the Year, several involved the biomedical sciences. As I’ve done in previous years (here and here), I’ll kick off this New Year by taking a quick look of some of the breakthroughs that directly involved NIH support:

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

Posted on by

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.