Lactase persistence and augmented salivary alpha-amylase gene copy numbers might have been selected by the combined toxic effects of gluten and (food born) pathogens

Med Hypotheses. 2014 Mar;82(3):326-34. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2013.12.020. Epub 2014 Jan 15.


Various positively selected adaptations to new nutrients have been identified. Lactase persistence is among the best known, conferring the ability for drinking milk at post weaning age. An augmented number of amylase gene (AMY1) copies, giving rise to higher salivary amylase activity, has been implicated in the consumption of starch-rich foods. Higher AMY1 copy numbers have been demonstrated in populations with recent histories of starchy-rich diets. It is however questionable whether the resulting polymorphisms have exerted positive selection only by providing easily available sources of macro and micronutrients. Humans have explored new environments more than any other animal. Novel environments challenge the host, but especially its immune system with new climatic conditions, food and especially pathogens. With the advent of the agricultural revolution and the concurrent domestication of cattle came new pathogens. We contend that specific new food ingredients (e.g., gluten) and novel pathogens drove selection for lactase persistence and higher AMY gene copy numbers. Both adaptations provide ample glucose for activating the sodium glucose-dependent co-transporter 1 (SGLT1), which is the principal glucose, sodium and water transporter in the gastro-intestinal tract. Their rapid uptake confers protection against potentially lethal dehydration, hyponatremia and ultimately multiple organ failure. Oral rehydration therapy aims at SGLT1 activity and is the current treatment of choice for chronic diarrhoea and vomiting. We hypothesize that lifelong lactase activity and rapid starch digestion should be looked at as the evolutionary covalent of oral rehydration therapy.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Food Microbiology*
  • Glutens / administration & dosage*
  • Humans
  • Lactase / metabolism*
  • Saliva / enzymology*
  • alpha-Amylases / genetics*


  • Glutens
  • alpha-Amylases
  • Lactase