London: Changes in gene family size may have contributed to the evolution of larger brains in mammals - including humans, a new study has found.
Scientists have inched closer to understanding genetic changes that permitted humans and other mammals to develop such big brains.
During evolution, different mammal species have experienced variable degrees of expansion in brain size. An important goal of neurobiology is to understand the genetic changes underlying these extraordinary adaptations.
The process by which some species evolved larger brains - called encephalisation - is not well understood by scientists. The puzzle is made more complex because evolving large brains comes at a very high cost.
Dr Humberto Gutierrez, from the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, led research which examined the genomes of 39 species of mammals with the aim of better understanding how brains became larger and more complex in mammals.
The scientists focused on the size of gene families across these species. Gene families are groups of related genes which share similar characteristics, often linked with common or related biological functions.
It is believed that large changes in the size of gene families can help to explain why related species evolved along different paths.
The researchers found a clear link between increased brain size and the expansion of gene families related to certain biological functions.
"We found that brain size variations are associated with changes in gene number in a large proportion of families of closely related genes. These gene families are preferentially involved in cell communication and cell movement as well as immune functions and are prominently expressed in the human brain," he said.
"Our results suggest that changes in gene family size may have contributed to the evolution of larger brains in mammals," Gutierrez said.
Mammalian species in general tend to have large brains compared to their body size which represent an evolutionary costly adaptation as they require large amounts of energy to function.