An evolutionary leap made at the bottom of the ocean more than 500 million years ago gives new insights into the causes of human diseases such as diabetes, cancer and neurological disorders, according to researchers.
Scientists at the Universities of Dundee and St Andrews have published the new findings in the Royal Society journal Open Biology.
Vertebrates emerged around 500 million years ago from a massive evolutionary upheaval that involved two successive doublings in the amount of DNA in a marine invertebrate.
These dramatic events triggered the evolution of a new animal, which became the ancestor of the backboned fishes, birds, reptiles and mammals, including humans.
Professor Carol MacKintosh, of the College of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee, said: "Amazingly, what happened so long ago still affects the life and diseases of modern humans."
The new research proposes how these ancient DNA doublings boosted internal communication systems. The result is that cells in our bodies are far better at integrating information than even the smartest smartphones.
Researchers have been able to compare the human genome to the recently decoded genetic sequence of the invertebrate amphioxus, a tiny creature still found in our seas and which can be regarded as a 'distant cousin' to our species.
Professor MacKintosh added: "The ancestors of amphioxus did not go through the two rounds of genome duplication, so it is still quite similar to the original spineless creature. You can still see the 'family resemblance' between amphioxus and humans, because like us, it has a nerve cord running down its back, blocks of muscle, and branchial arches where we have facial structures. However, unlike humans, amphioxus has no bones, no brain, no face and no heart. It is because of the two genome duplications that we gained the complexity to develop all these features.
"We study the complicated human systems that go wrong in diabetes and cancer. Now we will also look closely at this simpler animal to accelerate our understanding of human cells. We already have clues about important questions such as why did only certain genes survive the DNA doublings, how did they shape vertebrate evolution, and what is their impact on human health and diseases?"
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