The role of docosahexaenoic and the marine food web as determinants of evolution and hominid brain development: the challenge for human sustainability

Nutr Health. 2012 Jan;21(1):17-39. doi: 10.1177/0260106012437550.


Life originated on this planet about 3 billion years ago. For the first 2.5 billion years of life there was ample opportunity for DNA modification. Yet there is no evidence of significant change in life forms during that time. It was not until about 600 million years ago, when the oxygen tension rose to a point where air-breathing life forms became thermodynamically possible, that a major change can be abruptly seen in the fossil record. The sudden appearance of the 32 phyla in the Cambrian fossil record was also associated with the appearance of intracellular detail not seen in previous life forms. That detail was provided by cell membranes made with lipids (membrane fats) as structural essentials. Lipids thus played a major, as yet unrecognised, role as determinants in evolution. The compartmentalisation of intracellular, specialist functions as in the nucleus, mitochondria, reticulo-endothelial system and plasma membrane led to cellular specialisation and then speciation. Thus, not only oxygen but also the marine lipids were drivers in the Cambrian explosion. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) (all-cis-docosa-4,7,10,13,16,19-hexaenoic acid, C22:6ω3 or C22:6, n-3, DHA) is a major feature of marine lipids. It requires six oxygen atoms to insert its six double bonds, so it would not have been abundant before oxidative metabolism became plentiful. DHA provided the membrane backbone for the emergence of new photoreceptors that converted photons into electricity, laying the foundation for the evolution of other signalling systems, the nervous system and the brain. Hence, the ω3 DHA from the marine food web must have played a critical role in human evolution. There is also clear evidence from molecular biology that DHA is a determinant of neuronal migration, neurogenesis and the expression of several genes involved in brain growth and function. That same process was essential to the ultimate cerebral expansion in human evolution. There is now incontrovertible support of this hypothesis from fossil evidence of human evolution taking advantage of the marine food web. Lipids are still modifying the present evolutionary phase of our species; their signature is evident in the changing panorama of non-communicable diseases. The most worrying change in disease pattern is the sharp rise in brain disorders, which, in the European Union, has overtaken the cost of all other burdens of ill health at €386 billion for the 25 member states at 2004 prices. In 2007, the UK cost was estimated at £77 billion and confirmed in 2010 at £105 billion - greater than heart disease and cancer combined. The rise in mental ill health is now being globalised. The solution to the rising vascular disorders in the last century and now brain disorders in this century lies in a radical reappraisal of the food system, which last century was focussed on protein and calories, with little attention paid to the requirements of the brain - the very organ that was the determinant of human evolution. With the marine fish catch having plateaued 20 years ago and its sustainability now under threat, a critical aspect of this revision is the development of marine agriculture from estuarine, coastal and oceanic resources. Such action is likely to play a key role in future health and intelligence.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aquaculture
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Diseases / physiopathology
  • Cell Membrane / chemistry
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / genetics
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / metabolism
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / physiology*
  • Hominidae / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Marine Biology*
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Seafood


  • Docosahexaenoic Acids