Resurrecting ancient proteins, team finds just two mutations set stage for evolution of modern hormone signaling

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Posted June 25, 2013

Evolution, it seems, sometimes jumps instead of crawls. A research team led by a University of Chicago scientist has discovered two key mutations that sparked a hormonal revolution 500 million years ago.

In a feat of “molecular time travel,” the researchers resurrected and analyzed the functions of the ancestors of genes that play key roles in modern human reproduction, development, immunity and cancer. By re-creating the same DNA changes that occurred during those genes’ ancient history, the team showed that two mutations set the stage for hormones like estrogen, testosterone and cortisol to take on their crucial present-day roles.

“Changes in just two letters of the genetic code in our deep evolutionary past caused a massive shift in the function of one protein and set in motion the evolution of our present-day hormonal and reproductive systems,” said Joe Thornton, PhD, professor of human genetics and ecology & evolution at the University of Chicago, who led the study.

“If those two mutations had not happened, our bodies today would have to use different mechanisms to regulate pregnancy, libido, the response to stress, kidney function, inflammation, and the development of male and female characteristics at puberty,” Thornton said.

The findings were published online June 24 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Understanding how the genetic code of a protein determines its functions would allow biochemists to better design drugs and predict the effects of mutations on disease. Thornton said the discovery shows how evolutionary analysis of proteins’ histories can advance this goal, Before the group’s work, it was not previously known how the various steroid receptors in modern species distinguish estrogens from other hormones.

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