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Elife. 2018 Oct 16;7. pii: e38906. doi: 10.7554/eLife.38906.

Recurrent loss of HMGCS2 shows that ketogenesis is not essential for the evolution of large mammalian brains.

Jebb D1,2,3, Hiller M1,2,3.

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Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden, Germany.
Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, Dresden, Germany.
Center for Systems Biology Dresden, Dresden, Germany.


Apart from glucose, fatty acid-derived ketone bodies provide metabolic energy for the brain during fasting and neonatal development. We investigated the evolution of HMGCS2, the key enzyme required for ketone body biosynthesis (ketogenesis). Unexpectedly, we found that three mammalian lineages, comprising cetaceans (dolphins and whales), elephants and mastodons, and Old World fruit bats have lost this gene. Remarkably, many of these species have exceptionally large brains and signs of intelligent behavior. While fruit bats are sensitive to starvation, cetaceans and elephants can still withstand periods of fasting. This suggests that alternative strategies to fuel large brains during fasting evolved repeatedly and reveals flexibility in mammalian energy metabolism. Furthermore, we show that HMGCS2 loss preceded brain size expansion in toothed whales and elephants. Thus, while ketogenesis was likely important for brain size expansion in modern humans, ketogenesis is not a universal precondition for the evolution of large mammalian brains.


cetaceans; elephants; evolutionary biology; fruit bats; genetics; genomics; mammals

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