Thursday, 25 March 2021

Evolution News - The Simple Mutation That Makes Us Human

Human brain organoid
Credit: S.Benito-Kwiecinski/MRC LMB/Cell
How humans develop larger brains than other apes – UKRI

A team led by researchers at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) has identified a simple genetic switch that makes human brain organoids grow more like ape brains, and vice versa.

Organoids are the result of stem cells grown in vitro, in this case stem cells that would normally grow into brains in the developing embryo. The team discovered the 'switch' in the form of the gene 'ZEB2' which turns on sooner in the gorilla brain than the human brain. When this switch is delayed in the developing gorilla organoid, the cells multiply faster and the organoid grows like a human brain, and when turned on earlier in the developing human organoid it grows like gorilla brain tissue.

The change in the timing of this switch is probably the evolutionary change that allows the human brain to grow to something like three times the volume of the brains of the other apes.

From the UK Research and Innovations News item:
A new study is the first to identify how human brains grow much larger, with three times as many neurons, compared with chimpanzee and gorilla brains.

The study, led by researchers at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), identified a key molecular switch that can make ape brain organoids grow more like human organoids, and vice versa.

Published in the journal Cell, the study compared ‘brain organoids’ – 3D tissues grown from stem cells which model early brain development – that were grown from human, gorilla and chimpanzee stem cells.

Similar to actual brains, the human brain organoids grew a lot larger than the organoids from other apes.

How big our brains are

This provides some of the first insight into what is different about the developing human brain that sets us apart from our closest living relatives, the other great apes. The most striking difference between us and other apes is just how incredibly big our brains are.

Dr Madeline Lancaster, Lead author
MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology
Cambridge, UK

Neural progenitor cells

During the early stages of brain development, neurons are made by stem cells called neural progenitors. These progenitor cells initially have a cylindrical shape that makes it easy for them to split into identical daughter cells with the same shape.

The more times the neural progenitor cells multiply at this stage, the more neurons there will be later.

As the cells mature and slow their multiplication, they elongate, forming a shape like a stretched ice-cream cone.

Previously, research in mice had shown that their neural progenitor cells mature into a conical shape and slow their multiplication within hours.

Brain organoids

Human brain organoids grow substantially bigger than gorilla and chimpanzee (left to right). These brain organoids are 5 weeks old.
Credit: S.Benito-Kwiecinski/MRC LMB/Cell
Now, brain organoids have allowed researchers to uncover how this development happens in humans, gorillas and chimpanzees.

They found that in gorillas and chimpanzees this transition takes a long time, occurring over approximately five days.

Human progenitors were even more delayed in this transition, taking around seven days. The human progenitor cells maintained their cylinder-like shape for longer than other apes and during this time they split more frequently, producing more cells.

This difference in the speed of transition from neural progenitors to neurons means that the human cells have more time to multiply. This could be largely responsible for the approximately three-fold greater number of neurons in human brains compared with gorilla or chimpanzee brains.

Brain evolution

We have found that a delayed change in the shape of cells in the early brain is enough to change the course of development, helping determine the numbers of neurons that are made.

It’s remarkable that a relatively simple evolutionary change in cell shape could have major consequences in brain evolution. I feel like we’ve really learned something fundamental about the questions I’ve been interested in for as long as I can remember – what makes us human.

Dr Madeline Lancaster

Differences in the ZEB2 gene

To uncover the genetic mechanism driving these differences, the researchers compared gene expression – which genes are turned on and off – in the human brain organoids versus the other apes.

They identified differences in a gene called ‘ZEB2’, which was turned on sooner in gorilla brain organoids than in the human organoids.

To test the effects of the gene in gorilla progenitor cells, they delayed the effects of ZEB2. This slowed the maturation of the progenitor cells, making the gorilla brain organoids develop more similarly to human – slower and larger.

Conversely, turning on the ZEB2 gene sooner in human progenitor cells promoted premature transition in human organoids, so that they developed more like ape organoids.

Organoids are a model

The researchers note that organoids are a model and, like all models, do not fully replicate real brains, especially mature brain function. But for fundamental questions about our evolution, these brain tissues in a dish provide an unprecedented view into key stages of brain development that would be impossible to study otherwise.
The team's findings are published, open access in Cell today:

Graphical Abstract


  • Human brain organoids are expanded relative to nonhuman apes prior to neurogenesis
  • Ape neural progenitors go through a newly identified transition morphotype state
  • Delayed morphological transition with shorter cell cycles underlie human expansion
  • ZEB2 is as an evolutionary regulator of this transition


The human brain has undergone rapid expansion since humans diverged from other great apes, but the mechanism of this human-specific enlargement is still unknown. Here, we use cerebral organoids derived from human, gorilla, and chimpanzee cells to study developmental mechanisms driving evolutionary brain expansion. We find that neuroepithelial differentiation is a protracted process in apes, involving a previously unrecognized transition state characterized by a change in cell shape. Furthermore, we show that human organoids are larger due to a delay in this transition, associated with differences in interkinetic nuclear migration and cell cycle length. Comparative RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) reveals differences in expression dynamics of cell morphogenesis factors, including ZEB2, a known epithelial-mesenchymal transition regulator. We show that ZEB2 promotes neuroepithelial transition, and its manipulation and downstream signaling leads to acquisition of nonhuman ape architecture in the human context and vice versa, establishing an important role for neuroepithelial cell shape in human brain expansion. Graphical abstract.

So, there we have it. A simple mutation somewhere in our early ancestry, as we diverged from the other African apes put us on the path to growing bigger brains, enabling the coevolution of cultures, intelligence and cooperative behaviour than made us what we are today - Homo sapiens - the thinking ape.

And here we have yet another refutation of the childish Creationist cult dogma that all mutations are detrimental and 'devolutionary' (© 2019 Michael J Behe/Discovery Institute) because they move away from some assumed initial perfection on the mythical 'creation day', when a magic man in the sky magicked humans and everything else out of dirt.

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