Skeletal muscle comprises fast-twitch (white) fibers that fatigue quickly and slow-twitch (red) fibers that are more resistant to fatigue. The protein α-aktinin-3, which is found only in fast-twitch fibers, is absent in almost 20 percent of people – almost 1.5 billion individuals – due to a mutation in the gene that codes for it. In evolutionary terms, the presence of the mutated gene increased when humans migrated from Africa to the colder climates of central and northern Europe.
“This suggests that people lacking α-aktinin-3 are better at keeping warm and, energy-wise, at enduring a tougher climate, but there hasn’t been any direct experimental evidence for this before,” says Håkan Westerblad, professor of cellular muscle physiology at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Karolinska Institutet. “We can now show that the loss of this protein gives a greater resilience to cold and we’ve also found a possible mechanism for this.”
“The mutation probably gave an evolutionary advantage during the migration to a colder climate, but in today’s modern society this energy-saving ability might instead increase the risk of diseases of affluence, which is something we now want to turn our attention to,” says Professor Westerblad.