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PLoS Biol. 2004 May;2(5):E126. Epub 2004 Mar 23.

Accelerated evolution of the ASPM gene controlling brain size begins prior to human brain expansion.

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  • 1Laboratory of Biosystems and Cancer, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Maryland, USA.


Primary microcephaly (MCPH) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by global reduction in cerebral cortical volume. The microcephalic brain has a volume comparable to that of early hominids, raising the possibility that some MCPH genes may have been evolutionary targets in the expansion of the cerebral cortex in mammals and especially primates. Mutations in ASPM, which encodes the human homologue of a fly protein essential for spindle function, are the most common known cause of MCPH. Here we have isolated large genomic clones containing the complete ASPM gene, including promoter regions and introns, from chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, and rhesus macaque by transformation-associated recombination cloning in yeast. We have sequenced these clones and show that whereas much of the sequence of ASPM is substantially conserved among primates, specific segments are subject to high Ka/Ks ratios (nonsynonymous/synonymous DNA changes) consistent with strong positive selection for evolutionary change. The ASPM gene sequence shows accelerated evolution in the African hominoid clade, and this precedes hominid brain expansion by several million years. Gorilla and human lineages show particularly accelerated evolution in the IQ domain of ASPM. Moreover, ASPM regions under positive selection in primates are also the most highly diverged regions between primates and nonprimate mammals. We report the first direct application of TAR cloning technology to the study of human evolution. Our data suggest that evolutionary selection of specific segments of the ASPM sequence strongly relates to differences in cerebral cortical size.

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