Monday, January 14, 2008

Was lactose tolerance inevitable?   posted by p-ter @ 1/14/2008 09:03:00 PM
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Back in the days before I'd ever read any probability or population genetics, I imagine I considered, as many laymen still do, evolution as a sort of deterministic march towards some optimum. I still remember being amazed at the simple equations that show how much stochasticity is involved; how random chance and historical accident can shape the fate of genetic variants. But are there cases where the layman's instinct is correct, where we can say that evolution was deterministic? Obviously, in some sense this is impossible to prove; one can't simply rewind the clock a thousand times and watch the outcomes. But there are natural experiments that I think shed some light on the subject.

The advent of dairy cultures in various human populations around the world provides one such natural experiment. I'm writing about this because of a recent study identifying yet another allele leading to lactose tolerance, this time in a Saudi Arabian population that drinks sheep's milk. A previous study, regular readers may remember, identified three other polymorphisms leading to the phenotype in Sub-Saharan pastoralists. Along with the "European" allele, this brings the total of probable lactose-tolerance-causing mutations segregating in humans to five. Let's make some assumptions: lactose tolerance is perfectly dominant, has a selection coefficient of around 0.1, and all these mutations will continue to fixation (this last one would be almost certainly true if the selection coefficient were constant--all the alleles have escaped the stochastic phases of their trajectories--but is an open question. What is the fitness advantage today of lactose tolerance? Surely this is testable). With these assumptions, one predicts that lactose tolerance has arisen around 25 times since it became advantageous. Given that we're talking about less than ten thousand years since dairy farming, that's quite remarkable.

The relevant parameter here is the mutational target size--if lactose tolerance could only be caused by a change at one particular base pair in humans, it would never have arisen independently so many times. But with a mutational target so large, and a selection coefficient so strong, it becomes inevitable that any culture that developed dairy farming would eventually develop lactose tolerance. But it still seems amazing to me that it happened so quickly!

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