I found an article published in the New York Times on May 15th entitled “To move is to thrive. It’s in our genes.” This article caught my eye because I know that when I am in shape, it seems like everything goes well and this article says that might be part of our DNA. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/15/well/move/to-move-is-to-thrive-its-in-our-genes.htmlrref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FExercise&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=4&pgtype=collection
Researchers at Texas A&M published a study in April that used big data and genetic databases to try to pinpoint the moment in human evolution when genes began coding for a desire to be active. They found 104 snippets of DNA that are associated with physical activity in people, six of which are known to produce proteins related to metabolism. The researchers found that these snippets of DNA are not common to other mammals, suggesting that humans’ desire and need to move may not be shared among all mammals. In fact, when compared with Neanderthals and Chimps, the snippets related to inactivity were more shared than those related to activity, suggesting the will to move is more human-specific.
Previous twin studies and genome-wide association studies have suggested that 50 percent of physical activity behavior in humans depends on genes. It’s important that this and the more recent study the article commented on are not about innate aerobic fitness or performance ability. Rather, they are referring to the simple desire and interest to leave the couch and get moving! In today’s world, many Americans live sedentary lives, contributing to our nation’s prevalence of Type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and osteoarthritis. Moving matters! This article suggests the need and desire to move may be specific to humans as chimps, who share much of our DNA, do not experience the same health detriment from a lack of physical activity.
The article is specifically interested in understanding when the genetic desire to move came about, as that could help researchers cross-reference how food availability and climate were changing at that period of time to help understand WHY (on an evolutionary scale) we have to move.
The Texas A&M researchers found that the snippets of DNA telling us to get moving likely found their way into our genome about 500,000 years ago when we were Homo erectus – before Homo sapiens existed! The author of this article acted like this was a surprising finding and that they expected the genes to have turned up only 10,000 years ago when people started subsistence farming. Personally, I am not surprised that these genes were selected for long ago because I would have expected them to be present when our ancestors needed to hunt nomadically to survive. It seems like the need to move would be much more important if your next meal was always running away rather than being grown out of the ground. I wonder if these genes are now simply vestigial. Many people see going to the gym as a chore, wouldn’t it be cool if they did not have to! They should talk to He Jiankui – the gene editor from China.
The article gives an important caveat – that they did not perform any experiments and cannot be 100% confident in their estimate of when the genes came out. I think this is a responsible caveat to report, although the study most definitely provides an interesting insight into how ancient the desire to move is! One criticism I have for the author is the title: “To move is to thrive. It’s in our genes.” The article did not discuss heavily how exercise benefits the human body and mind, just about how ancient and how human-specific the will to move is. Maybe a more appropriate title would be “Get off your couch! It’s in your genes.”
I looked up the scientific study in PLOS one that the article was based on (see below), and it seems that the author of the NY times article did a fairly good job summarizing. A couple things left out of the summary were: (1) that most of the physical activity SNPs were in intron regions (not protein coding) and (2) that there actually IS great conservation of these genes between Neanderthals, chimps and Homo sapiens – it’s just that Homo sapiens experienced some evolutionary pressure to regulate physical activity more (as a result of mutations).
Overall it was an interesting read!
Thanks for reading!