Whether you are sipping on a glass of pinot noir with dinner or nursing a beer during the football game, you probably dont register the fact that you are technically ingesting a toxin–but despite this you’re actually nourishing yourself much like our ancestors did.
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Alcohol, or dietary ethanol as it is known in the science world, can be poisonous when ingested in large quantities. Even one drink too many can lead to a nasty hangover.
Fortunately, humans have special enzymes that help digest alcohol, making this toxin safe for moderate human consumption. The most important of these enzymes is ADH4, and over the years many scientists have assumed that humans developed this enzyme once they started making alcohol themselves around 7,000 BC.
New research shows that our ability to digest alcohol dates back even further as far as 10 million years ago. Did you throw away a piece of rotten fruit? Your ancestors might not, because they still posed a source of nutrition.
A new scientific paper reveals that the ADH4 enzyme started showing up in our ancestors in East Africa around 10 million years ago, a time during which the climate faced rapid changes and developing the ADH4 enzyme was critical for our ancestors survival.
Matthew Carrigan, lead author on the paper and an evolutionary biologist at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, found that our ancestors developed ADH4 once they started eating the rotten, fermented fruit off the forest floor in order to survive.
The emergence of ADH4 in our ancestors wasnt slow and gradual, Carrigan told The Salt. It was a rather abrupt shift of a large magnitude.
This abrupt shift might have helped humans survive the rapid and drastic changes in climate, as the fermented fruit provided crucial energy, sugars, vitamins, and proteins.
Although fermented fruit was probably not the favorite food choice for our ancestors, it did help ensure their survival when other food sources were scarce. Because of this need, a single genetic mutation occurred and made it possible for this human ancestor (which also happens to be the common ancestor of chimpanzees and gorillas) to metabolize alcohol.
By using paleogenetics, Carrigan was able to estimate how the ADH4 enzyme evolved over time.
He discovered that 50 million years ago, primates were unable to break down ethanol quickly and efficiently, and it wasnt until 10 million years ago that our ancestors developed the ADH4 enzyme.
Not only does this study show that humans have been able to digest alcohol long before we started making it on our own, but it also offers an interesting explanation about why humans relate alcohol to pleasure.
Because our ancestors once identified alcohol as a necessary fuel source, Carrigan believes that we still may associate alcohol with desire, which might explain alcoholism, to some extent.
Its not a whole lot different from the addictions some people have toward food, Carrigan told Science. At the right dose, when you didnt have alcohol and candy at every corner, it was hard to get too much of this sort of stuff, so when you found it, you wanted to be programmed to overconsume.
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