Adaptive evolution of four microcephaly genes and the evolution of brain size in anthropoid primates

Stephen H Montgomery, Isabella Capellini, Chris Venditti, Robert A Barton, Nicholas I Mundy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

102 Citations (Scopus)


The anatomical basis and adaptive function of the expansion in primate brain size have long been studied; however, we are only beginning to understand the genetic basis of these evolutionary changes. Genes linked to human primary microcephaly have received much attention as they have accelerated evolutionary rates along lineages leading to humans. However, these studies focus narrowly on apes, and the link between microcephaly gene evolution and brain evolution is disputed. We analyzed the molecular evolution of four genes associated with microcephaly (ASPM, CDK5RAP2, CENPJ, MCPH1) across 21 species representing all major clades of anthropoid primates. Contrary to prevailing assumptions, positive selection was not limited to or intensified along the lineage leading to humans. In fact we show that all four loci were subject to positive selection across the anthropoid primate phylogeny. We developed clearly defined hypotheses to explicitly test if selection on these loci was associated with the evolution of brain size. We found positive relationships between both CDK5RAP2 and ASPM and neonatal brain mass and somewhat weaker relationships between these genes and adult brain size. In contrast, there is no evidence linking CENPJ and MCPH1 to brain size evolution. The stronger association of ASPM and CDK5RAP2 evolution with neonatal brain size than with adult brain size is consistent with these loci having a direct effect on prenatal neuronal proliferation. These results suggest that primate brain size may have at least a partially conserved genetic basis. Our results contradict a previous study that linked adaptive evolution of ASPM to changes in relative cortex size; however, our analysis indicates that this conclusion is not robust. Our finding that the coding regions of two widely expressed loci has experienced pervasive positive selection in relation to a complex, quantitative developmental phenotype provides a notable counterexample to the commonly asserted hypothesis that cis-regulatory regions play a dominant role in phenotypic evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)625-38
Number of pages14
JournalMolecular Biology and Evolution
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2011


  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Brain/anatomy & histology
  • Cell Cycle Proteins
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins/genetics
  • Microcephaly/genetics
  • Microtubule-Associated Proteins/genetics
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins/genetics
  • Phenotype
  • Phylogeny
  • Primates/anatomy & histology


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