There are many things that set us humans apart from other species: large brains, bipedalism, a predilection for puns. But we’re also defined by our singular vulnerability to cardiovascular disease.
A recent study by researchers from the University of California, San Diego, suggests that a mutation during the lower paleolithic period, which began around 3.3 million years ago, could be the culprit. This single genetic alteration inactivated a gene called CMAH, leaving early humans without the mechanisms that seem to protect other mammals from heart disease.
Namely, the loss of the gene made our forebears deficient in molecules called sialic acids. In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers genetically modified mice to resemble humans in the deficiency of a sialic acid called Neu5Gc. In the modified mice, they found that rates of atherosclerosis — the buildup of fats and cholesterol on artery walls that leads to heart attack — had doubled compared to normal mice. Those that ate red meat meat saw their risk compounded even more.
Those results offer new insight into the origin of a disease that claims a quarter of all lives in the United States.
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