Returning from Minneapolis to the The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in Durham, North Carolina, I brought with me a scientific paper that Martin Maiers told me about.
Martin is Director of the Bioinformatics Group at Be the Match in Minneapolis. I’ve worked with Martin and senior scientist, Abeer Madbouly, on videos about genetic ancestry and the ancient immune system — two of the themes in the paper.
Plus, one of my projects at NESCent is based on recent high resolution data from archaic genomes, so Martin thought I should know about it. Published in “Nature Reviews Immunology” you can find Variable NK cell receptors and their MHC class I ligands in immunity, reproduction and human evolution online here.
Insights into human evolution is intriguing but the research has important clinical applications. Martin’s group of geneticists, software developers, and mathematicians collaborate with Peter Parham and Ashley Moffett, authors of the paper. This current work could lead to pre-natal screening tools and predictors for low-birth weight, pre-clampsia conditions in expectant mothers.
So, returning from Minneapolis to NESCent with paper in hand, it was a conversation with the scientists at the Center. “What’s it about, they asked?”
“The balancing selection of our immune and reproductive system that allowed for babies with larger brains, a key factor in human evolution”. Yah, a real mouthful that tumbled out almost garbled-free. They laughed and said, “sounds good, send it out for Journal Club”.
Journal Club meets every Wednesday afternoon in a conference room at the Center. Post docs, sabbatical professors, and scholarly researchers at the Center meet to discuss current peer reviewed publications. One paper per week and the discussion is led by the person who selects the paper.
That meant me, so I was in for some serious study. Although I’ve been nurtured by the Bioinformatic scientists, the paper was challenging and for the scientists as well. Since most are evolutionary biologists, they are not familiar with the nuances of the human leucocyte antigen system. It’s densely packed with acronyms and jargon, like characters in a Russian novel. But I dove in and talked the twelve evolutionary biologists and one physicist through the paper.
Past the three pages of immune system details, the paper starts to connect to the story of human evolution. Parham and Moffet explain that a critical change between chimpanzee and human immune systems, an important innovation for hominid evolution occurred about 5 to 7 million years ago.
After the chimp and human split, they align additional changes in our immune system with key events in the timeline of human migration:
• 1.8 myr Homo erectus out of Africa
• 600,000 yr Neandertal and modern human split
• 67,000 yr modern human out of Africa
This is what I like about basic research and the thinkers who do it. When we understand the principals of evolution, we begin to understand human disease. Research that touches on human evolution does something that science usually can’t do — captivate people with the lost, now found and decoded story of how we are made and who we are.
How was the paper received at Journal Club? An animated back and forth discussion for over an hour made a fun afternoon. Journal Club is one of the best experiences I’ve had at this “think tank” of evolutionary science. I will certainly miss this kind of interaction when my residency at NESCent ends this Fall.
About the image shown above
Illustration for the Evolution and Cancer conference, “From Unicellularity to Multicellularity”, at University of California, San Francisco.