Mutation Monday: Lactase Persistence

Welcome back to your Mutation Station.
by Rich Feldenberg

Today we will examine the importance of the LP-mutation (Lactase Persistence-mutation), and its impact on human survival and global colonization.  Creationist like to ask the tiresome question, “name a mutation that increases the information content of a gene”.  I don’t think they really understand the question that they are asking, but today we will give one example of a simple mutation in human DNA that offered an advantage through natural selection to our species.  There are other examples, and we’ll address some of them in later blog entries.

Lactose is a carbohydrate found in mammalian milk.  It is composed of two simple sugars bonded together.  Humans and other mammals evolved to be dependent on mother’s milk during infancy, but then to be weaned off milk once the animal was mature enough to begin finding food on its own.  In order to digest lactose the enzyme lactase is required.  Lactase is produced in the digestive tracts of the infants and young mammals, but after weaning is generally no longer produced.  This is to conserve resources in the sense that it makes no sense to keep making an enzyme or other protein that is not being used.

This was true of early humans, as well, but a mutation occurred about 7500 years ago that allowed the lactase enzyme to remain expressed much longer throughout human life.  This mutation would then make drinking milk possible by adult humans, whereas prior to this, adult humans would not have tolerated drinking milk.  It is probably no coincidence that this mutation took place around the same time as the domestication of cattle and goats – sources of milk.
The mutation, itself is due to a simple switch of one DNA base in the gene coding for lactase, for another base – a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP).   This lead to a change in the regulation of expression of the gene so that it wasn’t shut off when it normally would have been.  To our stone age ancestors, this would have been a wasteful and useless mutation, but with the development of an agricultural society it became indispensable as a way to increase ever rare nutritional sources.  It may have been responsible for allowing humans to migrate into and successfully inhabit Europe.
1. “The Milk Revolution”, Andrew Curry; Scientific American special collector’s edition.  July 2015.

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