A genetic mutation that occurred thousands of years ago might be the answer to how early humans were able to move from central Africa and across the continent in what has been called “the great expansion,” according to new research from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

By analyzing genetic sequence variation patterns in different populations around the world, three teams of scientists from Wake Forest Baptist, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, demonstrated that a critical genetic variant arose in a key gene cluster on chromosome 11, known as the fatty acid desaturase cluster or FADS, more than 85,000 years ago. This variation would have allowed early humans to convert plant-based polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) to brain PUFAs necessary for increased brain size, complexity and function. The FADS cluster plays a critical role in determining how effectively medium-chain PUFAs found in plants are converted to the long-chain PUFAs found in the brain.

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