Colloquium paper: uniquely human evolution of sialic acid genetics and biology

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 May 11;107 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):8939-46. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0914634107. Epub 2010 May 5.


Darwinian evolution of humans from our common ancestors with nonhuman primates involved many gene-environment interactions at the population level, and the resulting human-specific genetic changes must contribute to the "Human Condition." Recent data indicate that the biology of sialic acids (which directly involves less than 60 genes) shows more than 10 uniquely human genetic changes in comparison with our closest evolutionary relatives. Known outcomes are tissue-specific changes in abundant cell-surface glycans, changes in specificity and/or expression of multiple proteins that recognize these glycans, and novel pathogen regimes. Specific events include Alu-mediated inactivation of the CMAH gene, resulting in loss of synthesis of the Sia N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc) and increase in expression of the precursor N-acetylneuraminic acid (Neu5Ac); increased expression of alpha2-6-linked Sias (likely because of changed expression of ST6GALI); and multiple changes in SIGLEC genes encoding Sia-recognizing Ig-like lectins (Siglecs). The last includes binding specificity changes (in Siglecs -5, -7, -9, -11, and -12); expression pattern changes (in Siglecs -1, -5, -6, and -11); gene conversion (SIGLEC11); and deletion or pseudogenization (SIGLEC13, SIGLEC14, and SIGLEC16). A nongenetic outcome of the CMAH mutation is human metabolic incorporation of foreign dietary Neu5Gc, in the face of circulating anti-Neu5Gc antibodies, generating a novel "xeno-auto-antigen" situation. Taken together, these data suggest that both the genes associated with Sia biology and the related impacts of the environment comprise a relative "hot spot" of genetic and physiological changes in human evolution, with implications for uniquely human features both in health and disease.

MeSH terms

  • Antigens, CD / genetics
  • Antigens, Differentiation, Myelomonocytic / genetics
  • Arginine
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Macrophages / metabolism
  • Male
  • Membrane Glycoproteins / genetics*
  • Models, Genetic
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid / metabolism*
  • Polysaccharides / metabolism
  • Pre-Eclampsia / metabolism
  • Pregnancy
  • Receptors, Immunologic / genetics
  • Sialic Acid Binding Ig-like Lectin 1
  • Sialic Acid Binding Ig-like Lectin 3


  • Antigens, CD
  • Antigens, Differentiation, Myelomonocytic
  • CD33 protein, human
  • Membrane Glycoproteins
  • Polysaccharides
  • Receptors, Immunologic
  • SIGLEC1 protein, human
  • Sialic Acid Binding Ig-like Lectin 1
  • Sialic Acid Binding Ig-like Lectin 3
  • Arginine
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid