Evolution Disabled Human Body Hair Genes

Author: University of Utah
Published: 2023/01/06 - Updated: 2023/01/17
Peer-Reviewed: Yes
Contents: Summary - Main - Related Publications

Synopsis: Research reveals that humans have the genes needed for a full coat of body hair, but evolution has disabled them. The study shows that nature has deployed the same strategy at least nine times in mammals that sit on different evolutionary tree branches. Ancestors of rhinos, naked mole rats, dolphins, and other hairless mammals stomped, scuttled, and swam along the same path to deactivate a common set of genes to shed their hair and fur.

Biological Diversity

Biological Diversity, or biodiversity, refers to the various life forms on earth, including animals, plants, microorganisms, and the entire ecosystem they live in. The age of the Earth is about 4.54 billion years, with the earliest undisputed evidence of life dating back at least 3.5 billion years. Biological diversity is the variety and variability of life on Earth. Biological diversity is a measure of variation at the genetic (genetic variability), species (species diversity), and ecosystem (ecosystem diversity) levels. The four primary levels of biodiversity are species, genetic, ecosystem, and global biodiversity.

Main Digest

Complementary Evolution of Coding and Noncoding Sequence Underlies Mammalian Hairlessness

Orangutans, mice, and horses are covered with it, but humans aren't. Why we have significantly less body hair than most other mammals has long remained a mystery. But a first-of-its-kind comparison of genetic codes from 62 animals is beginning to tell the story of how people-and other mammals-lost their locks.

Humans appear to have the genes for a full coat of body hair. Still, evolution has disabled them, scientists at the University of Utah Health and the University of Pittsburgh report in the journal eLife. The findings point to a set of genes and regulatory regions of the genome that appear essential for making hair.

The research answers fundamental questions about mechanisms that shape this defining human characteristic. The scientists suspect it could eventually lead to new ways to recover hair after balding and chemotherapy - or in people with disorders that cause hair loss.

The study shows that nature has deployed the same strategy at least nine times in mammals that sit on different evolutionary tree branches. Ancestors of rhinos, naked mole rats, dolphins, and other hairless mammals stomped, scuttled, and swam along the same path to deactivate a common set of genes to shed their hair and fur.

"We have taken the creative approach of using biological diversity to learn about our own genetics," says Nathan Clark, Ph.D., a human geneticist at U of U Health, who carried out much of the research while at the University of Pittsburgh with Amanda Kowalczyk, Ph.D., and Maria Chikina, Ph.D. "This is helping us to pinpoint regions of our genome that contribute to something important to us."

Continued below image.
Image of an Australopithecus with body hair. Australopithecus is a genus of early hominins that existed in Africa during the Late Pliocene and Early Pleistocene. The genera Homo (which includes modern humans), Paranthropus, and Kenyanthropus evolved from some Australopithecus species.
Image of an Australopithecus with body hair. Australopithecus is a genus of early hominins that existed in Africa during the Late Pliocene and Early Pleistocene. The genera Homo (which includes modern humans), Paranthropus, and Kenyanthropus evolved from some Australopithecus species.
Continued...

The Benefits of Being Hairless

Whether talking about a monkey's coarse body hair or a cat's soft fur, hairiness looks different across the animal kingdom. The same goes for hairlessness. Humans have a characteristic tuft of hair on our heads, but because our body hair is less conspicuous, we fall into the "hairless" category. Other mammals with hints of hair are joining us, like elephants with their sparse covering, sheer-coated pigs, and mustachioed walruses.

There are benefits to having a receding hairline.

Without dense hair, elephants cool off more easily in hot climates, and walruses glide effortlessly in the water. Despite the varied reasons, analysis by Kowalczyk found that these and the other hairless mammals analyzed have accumulated mutations in many of the same genes. These include genes that code for keratin and additional elements that build the hair shaft and facilitate growth.

Regulatory regions of the genome appear to be equally important, the research additionally showed. These regions don't code for structures that make hair but indirectly influence the process. They guide when and where certain genes turn on and how much is made.

Further, the screen uncovered genes for which a role in sprouting hair had not yet been defined. Combined with additional evidence-such as signs of being active in the skin-these findings highlight a new set of genes that could be involved in growing hair.

"There are a good number of genes where we don't know much about them," Kowalczyk says. "We think they could have roles in hair growth and maintenance."

Untangling Hair Loss

To detangle the mystery of mammalian hair loss, Clark, Kowalczyk, and Chikina searched for genes in hairless animals that evolved at faster rates compared to their counterparts in hairy animals.

"As animals are under evolutionary pressure to lose hair, the genes encoding hair become less important," Clark says. "That's why they speed up the rate of genetic changes permitted by natural selection. Some genetic changes might be responsible for the loss of hair. Others could be collateral damage after hair stops growing."

To perform the search, they developed computational methods to compare hundreds of genome regions simultaneously. They surveyed 19,149 genes and 343,598 regulatory regions conserved across the dozens of mammalian species analyzed. They took steps to discount genetic regions responsible for evolving other species-specific traits, such as adapting to aquatic life.

The fact that the unbiased screen identified known hair genes demonstrated that the approach worked, Clark explains. It also suggests that the genes identified in the screen that are less well-defined could be just as important for having hair - or not having it.

Clark and colleagues are now using the same approach to define genetic regions involved in preventing cancer, extending lifespan, and understanding other health conditions.

"This is a way to determine global genetic mechanisms underlying different characteristics," Clark says.

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and published as "Complementary evolution of coding and noncoding sequence underlies mammalian hairlessness."

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This peer reviewed publication pertaining to our Anthropology and Disability section was selected for circulation by the editors of Disabled World due to its likely interest to our disability community readers. Though the content may have been edited for style, clarity, or length, the article "Evolution Disabled Human Body Hair Genes" was originally written by University of Utah, and submitted for publishing on 2023/01/06 (Edit Update: 2023/01/17). Should you require further information or clarification, University of Utah can be contacted at the uofuhealth.utah.edu website. Disabled World makes no warranties or representations in connection therewith.

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