Gaucher and Ortlund teamed up to “resurrect” ancient versions of the enzyme uricase, in search of an explanation for why humans develop gout. Yong explains:
The substance responsible for the condition [gout] is uric acid, which is normally expelled by our kidneys, via urine. But if there’s too much uric acid in our blood, it doesn’t dissolve properly and forms large insoluble crystals that build up in our joints. That explains the painful swellings. High levels of uric acid have also been linked to obesity, diabetes, and diseases of the heart, liver and kidneys. Most other mammals don’t have this problem. In their bodies, an enzyme called uricase converts uric acid into other substances that can be more easily excreted.
Uricase is an ancient invention, one that’s shared by bacteria and animals alike. But for some reason, apes have abandoned it. Our uricase gene has mutations that stop us from making the enzyme at all. It’s a “pseudogene”—the biological version of a corrupted computer file. And it’s the reason that our blood contains 3 to 10 times more uric acid than that of other mammals, predisposing us to gout.
“Our role* on the project was to solve the three dimensional structure of this enzyme using X-ray crystallography to figure out how these ancient mutations led to a decline in uricase activity in humans and apes,” Ortlund says. “We were interested in how this enzyme lost function, and for the future, how we can restore function to this enzyme to create a more “human-like” (and thus less immunogenic) protein than the current available bacterial or baboon-pig uricase chimeras.”
Their paper also explores what advantage humans might have gained from losing functional uricase. The proposal is: by disabling uricase, ancient primates became more efficient at turning fructose, the sugar found in fruit, into fat. Their results provide some support for the “thrifty gene hypothesis:” the idea that humans are evolutionarily adapted to being able to survive an erratic food supply, which is not so great now that people in developed countries have access to lots of food. The authors write:
The loss of uricase may have provided a survival advantage by amplifying the effects of fructose to enhance fat stores, and by the ability of uric acid to stimulate foraging, while also increasing blood pressure in response to salt. Thus, the loss of uricase may represent the first example of a “thrifty gene” to explain the current epidemic of obesity and diabetes, except that it is the loss of a gene, and not the acquisition of a new gene, that has increased our susceptibility to these conditions.
*Ortlund’s former postdoc Michael Murphy was involved in this part.