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Revealed: Epic evolutionary struggle between reproduction and immunity to infectious disease

Can't blame us if our feet hurt. We humans have been walking erect for well over 3 million years. 

That new style of locomotion necessitated "considerable anatomical changes that altered the size and shape of the human female pelvis and the dimensions of the birth canal," write Stanford and evolutionary theorist Peter Parham, PhD, and pathologist Ashley Moffitt, MD, of the University of Cambridge, in a just-released review article in Nature Reviews Immunology.

Walking upright, along with the development of our bigger brains, allowed us to head out out of Africa into Eurasia. Successive migration events of this nature have occurred a number of times since - leading to the emergence of Neanderthals in Europe around 600,000 years ago and the arrival there of anatomically modern humans (that's us) a scant 67,000 years ago, give or take a few weeks.

But those bigger brains caused problems, too, the authors write:

The size of the human baby's head increased until it reached the limit defined by the birth canal... [A]t full term, a modern human baby's head just fits into the birth canal... [I]n the course of human evolution, birthing became a difficult, dangerous and frequently fatal process...

Bigger brains need more nourishment in utero, putting greater demands on the blood supply to the placenta. Plus, insufficient blood supply to the placenta can lead to pre-eclampsia, stillbirth or low birth weight. But if an emerging baby's head is too big, it could kill both mother and child on the way out of the womb. It's a delicate balancing act.

To the rescue come specialized immune cells called natural killer (or NK) cells, which play an important role in our front-line defense against infectious pathogens. NK cells play a key role in reproduction, too, by carefully regulating the development of placental blood vessels. This keeps fetal growth in bounds.

NK cells feature a particular surface molecule that comes in two versions. One of these versions turns out to be somewhat better suited for the task of managing fetal growth, the other for fighting infectious pathogens. Both of these versions are found in every human population ever studied, suggesting that a group's survival over evolutionary time is favored by some optimal balance between the two.

Parham and Moffett conjure up a vision of just how such a compromise between these two versions might arise:

When an epidemic infection passed through a population, causing disease, death (particularly of the young) and social disruption, selection favored [one version]. When the epidemic subsided, the surviving and now smaller population was immune to further infection and enriched for [that version]. At this juncture, survival of the current generation was no longer the issue, and the priority became production of the next generation. [This favored the evolutionary selection of] factors that enhance the generation of larger and more robust progeny... [H]uman history has always involved successive cycles of [this] type...

Thus, all human populations maintain a mix of both surface-molecule versions. Any distinction between safe, efficient reproduction and vulnerability to infectious disease may seem nonexistent to people who consider babies to be invading organisms - which I suppose they are, in a way. (But cute, too.)

Previously: Our species' twisted family tree, Humans owe important disease-fighting genes to trysts with cavemen and Humans share history - and a fair amount of genetic material - with Neanderthals
Photo by Lord Jim

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