Human Ancestors Adapted to Alcohol 10 Million Years Ago

By Victoria Kim 12/15/14

New research shows that our human ancestors were able to process alcohol long before walking upright.

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Humanity's first hangover. Shutterstock

Humans may have developed the ability to process alcohol roughly 10 million years ago, a seven-year study at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution has discovered.

The research team, led by biology professor at Santa Fe College Matthew Carrigan, found a gene mutation among ancestral gorillas and humans during the same time period Earth underwent a cooling phase and humans transitioned from forests to grasslands. The ability to process alcohol was cultivated while eating rotten, fermented fruit that had fallen, as our human ancestors transitioned from living in trees to living on the ground, according to research published earlier this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Upon finding this gene mutation, the researchers tried to interpret “whether this mutation was actually a beneficial adaptation to the organism at that time” and led them to “look at what else was going on at that time from other studies,” Carrigan said. They located the ethanol-active enzyme, Alcohol Dehydrogenase 4.

Carrigan added they “suspect that most organisms living before this mutation would have avoided fermented fruit because it would’ve led to intoxication.”

But although evidence shows human ancestors adapted to ethanol 10 million years ago, the adaptation is far from perfect, as Carrigan noted how ethanol has affected humans in today’s world. The abundance of alcohol has led to several new diseases for humans, such as alcoholism.

“Our environment has changed so much,” Carrigan said. “Rather than having low concentration of ethanol found rarely in fruit, we now have much more highly concentrated ethanol available at almost every corner convenience store.”

This research, which was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, could lead to “improved ways to treat or prevent alcohol-related diseases,” Carrigan said.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr

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