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Smoke Resistance

August 3, 2016

A random mutation allowed our ancestors to stay relatively healthy despite exposure to toxic woodfire smoke.

Transcript

8362574062_dddec250b6_k Brandon Grasley CC BY 2.0, via flickr

Brandon Grasley (CC BY 2.0, via flickr)

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Survival in smoke-filled caves. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Over a million years ago, our ancestors and other homonids began using fire for warmth, protection and cooking. But smoke is toxic, leading to respiratory illness and infections. In the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, Penn State scientist Gary Perdew and his colleagues report that the ancestors of modern humans acquired a mutation that made them resistant to smoke’s toxic effects, while Neandertals and other homonids did not.

GARY PERDEW (Penn State University):

Perhaps two hundred thousand years ago, there was a human that actually picked up this mutation, and then it got spread over thousands of years to everyone.

HIRSHON:

They made the discovery by comparing the genomes of modern humans with those of other homonids. And while the mutation probably gave us a survival advantage over Neandertals, he says our tolerance of smoke may have harmed us in the long term, by leading to smoking. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.