Archive for August, 2016

Smoke and human evolution

August 31st, 2016 1 comment

In this blog we have discussed that some plants have evolved seeds with sensitivity to chemicals produced by fire in such a way that these chemicals stimulate the germination of the plants after a fire; we call this process smoke-stimulated germination [1-3]. Well, plants are not the only organisms that have evolved in response to chemicals present in the smoke, humans too! A recent paper show that modern humans are the only primates (including early hominids as Nearthentals and Denisovans) that carry a mutation increasing tolerance to smoke chemicals produced by fires [4]. This mutation could have given an evolutionary advantage to modern humans in relation to other hominids as allowed them to use fire for many important activities (e.g., cooking, hunting, defense, heating, agriculture). This high exposure to smoke would have also increased the susceptibility to pulmonary infections, and even the evolution of some of them (tuberculosis [5]). The tolerance to smoke also allowed modern humans to have some tolerance to pollution and to smoke cigarettes! That is, the ability to smoke could be a side effect (an exaptation, if you'd like) of been adapted to use fire, and in fact, it currently acts as a secondary sexual character!

Smoking as a secondary sexual character (Woody Allen in Manhattan, 1979).

[1] Moreira B., Tormo J., Estrelles E., Pausas J.G. 2010. Disentangling the role of heat and smoke as germination cues in Mediterranean Basin flora. Annals of Botany 105: 627-635. [doi | pdf | post]

[2] Tormo, J., B. Moreira, and J. G. Pausas. 2014. Field evidence of smoke-stimulated seedling emergence and establishment in Mediterranean Basin flora. Journal of Vegetation Science 25: 771-777. [doi | wiley | pdf | post]

[3] Smoke-stimulated germination,

[4] Hubbard, T.D., Murray, I.A., Bisson, W.H., Sullivan, A.P., Sebastian, A., Perry, G.H., Jablonski, N.G. & Perdew, G.H. (2016) Divergent Ah receptor ligand selectivity during hominin evolution. Mol. Biol. Evol., 33:2648-2658.

[5] Chisholm, R.H., Trauer, J.M., Curnoe, D. & Tanaka, M.M. (2016). Controlled fire use in early humans might have triggered the evolutionary emergence of tuberculosis. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 113, 9051-9056.

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