This is the first time I'm teaching Introduction to Biological Anthropology here at Nazarbayev University. It's exciting and curious that for nearly every class session, I'm able to find a very recent outside article or blog post that's relevant to the field and/or something we're talking about at the moment. For instance, the 30-paper barrage of the ENCODE project came out right as we were beginning the unit focused on evolution and genetics. Serendipity!
Recently in this first unit, we covered one of the classic anthro examples illustrating principles of both genetics and evolution: sickle-cell anemia and malaria resistance. And right on cue, a brief review about the actual molecular basis for this phenomenon was just published in Nature Genetics (Feliciano, 2012, reviewing LaMonte et al., 2012).
Briefly, sickle-cell anemia is an iron deficiency caused by having aberrant hemoglobin, and characterized by sickle-shaped red blood cells ("erythrocytes"). The sickle cell trait is caused by a simple point mutation on the 11th chromosome, at a locus termed the hemoglobin S (or HbS) allele; the 'normal' allele is designated A (or HbA). If you have two A alleles you have normal hemoglobin, whereas two S alleles result in sickle cell, which is generally fatal. You don't want to have two S alleles. The deleterious S allele is nevertheless maintained in the population because heterozygous individuals (AS genotype) have basically normal red blood cells and resistance to malaria, a disease caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum. P. falciparum loves red blood cells, and so in populations where malaria is endemic, having normal hemoglobin can actually be a health risk because of stupid smelly P. falciparum. Natural selection therefore maintains both the normal A and sickle S alleles in malarial areas because of a heterozygote advantage.
The outstanding question, however, is how having both an A and an S allele confers resistance to malaria. The textbook explanation (e.g. Larsen, 2010) is that sickle cells are poor in oxygen, and therefore poor hosts for stupid smelly P. falciparum. A recent study, however, points to a much more badass mechanism of resistance.
LaMonte and colleagues (2012) show a role for microRNAs (miRNA) in sickle cell-mediated resistance to malaria. miRNAs are small strands of RNA (21-25 base pairs long) that do not get translated into proteins, but are nevertheless important in regulating gene expression. This mechanism is called RNA interference (RNAi) - check out this sweet slideshow and animation from Nature for more info. What LaMonte and colleagues found was that SS and AS red blood cells had higher concentrations of certain variants of miRNA, which were then transferred into P. falciparum parasitizing these cells. These miRNA-enriched parasites, in turn, showed reduced growth compared to those parasitizing normal cells. It remains to be seen, however, just how these human miRNAs are disrupting development of Plasmodium, since these parasites do not produce the same genetic machinery that utilizes the miRNA used in human RNAi (Feliciano, 2012).
Not being a geneticist, I'm really enjoying how complicated the genome is proving to be. The example here illustrates not only our increased appreciation for RNA and especially non-protein-coding elements, but also the dynamic genetic interactions between different species.
Better explanations than I was able to give
Feliciano P (2012). miRNAs and malaria resistance. Nature genetics, 44 (10) PMID: 23011225
Lamonte G, Philip N, Reardon J, Lacsina JR, Majoros W, Chapman L, Thornburg CD, Telen MJ, Ohler U, Nicchitta CV, Haystead T, & Chi JT (2012). Translocation of Sickle Cell Erythrocyte MicroRNAs into Plasmodium falciparum Inhibits Parasite Translation and Contributes to Malaria Resistance. Cell host & microbe, 12 (2), 187-99 PMID: 22901539