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Invited Review
J Nutrigenet Nutrigenomics 2009;2:91–102 DOI: 10.1159/000228251
Published online: July 10, 2009

Nutrigenetics in the Light of Human Evolution1
Fabio Verginelli a Federica Aru a Pasquale Battista b Renato Mariani-Costantini a
Departments of a Oncology and Neuroscience, Section of Molecular Pathology, and b Human Movement Sciences, G. d’Annunzio University, and Center ofExcellence on Aging (Ce.S.I.), G. d’Annunzio University Foundation, Chieti, Italy

Key Words Culture Diet Disease Encephalization Genetics Human evolution Metabolism

Abstract Bio-cultural adaptations to new foods played a key role in human evolution. The fossil record and sequence differences between human and chimpanzee genes point to a major dietary shift at the stem of human evolution. Theearliest representatives of the human lineage diverged from the ancestors of chimpanzees because of their better adaptation to hard and abrasive foods. Bipedalism and modifications of the hand, which allowed tool manufacture and use, impacted on dietary flexibility, facilitating access to foods of animal origin. This promoted major anatomic, physiologic and metabolic adaptations. Encephalization,which requires highquality diet, characterizes the evolutionary sequence that, through the Homo ergaster/erectus stages, led to our species, Homo sapiens, which originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago. At the end of the Ice Age, climatic changes and human impact determined a major food crisis, which triggered the agricultural revolution. This affected nutrition and health, with rapid evolutionaryadaptations through the se-

lection of genetic variants that allowed better utilization of new foods, different in relation to geography and culture. Today population growth, globalization and economic pressure powerfully affect diets worldwide. We must take into account our evolutionary past to meet the present nutritional challenges. Copyright © 2009 S. Karger AG, Basel

Diet and HumanEvolution

To quote the title of a commentary by Theodosius Dobzhansky: ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’ [1, 2]. Evolutionary success depends on the ability to adapt to environmental change. As explained by Darwin in On the Origin of Species (1859): ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change’[3, 4]. Food is crucial to survival. Thus the ability to meet nutritional requirements by adapting to new foods plays a crucial role in the origin and evolution of species. Darwin’s ‘finches’ (Geospizinae) on the Galapagos islands provide a classic model for this concept, as the diversification between related species of these passerine birds is readily evident
Presented at the Second Congressof the International Society of Nutrigenetics/Nutrigenomics (ISNN), October 6–8, 2008, Geneva, Switzerland.

1

Dedicated to the bicentennial of Charles Robert Darwin.

© 2009 S. Karger AG, Basel 1661–6499/09/0022–0091$26.00/0 Fax +41 61 306 12 34 E-Mail karger@karger.ch www.karger.com Accessible online at: www.karger.com/jnn

Renato Mariani-Costantini Unit of Molecular Pathology andGenomics, Center of Excellence on Aging (Ce.S.I.) ‘G. d’Annunzio’ University Foundation, Via Colle dell’Ara IT–66013 Chieti (Italy) Tel. +39 0871 541 496, Fax +39 0871 541 495, E-Mail rmc@unich.it

Fig. 1. Darwin’s ‘finches’ (also known as the Galápagos Finches or

Geospizinae), a classic example of diversification by natural selection, from the original illustration published in the 1859 andsubsequent editions of On the Origin of Species [3]. These Passerine birds include a number of related species, mostly classified within the genus Geospiza, which are connected to American tanagers in the family Emberizidae rather than to the European finches. (1) Geospiza magnirostris. (2) Geospiza fortis. (3) Geospiza parvula. (4) Certhidea olivacea. G. magnirostris and G. fortis have broad, deep...
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