Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Fruitful Occurrence

             The Los Angeles Times reports a new study found that the “guts of our primate ancestors” evolved the ability to metabolize alcohol. It had been thought that our alcohol consumption started with our capability to ferment fruit about 9,000 years ago. Instead, according to the Times, the study purports to show our primate ancestors “have been enjoying the effects of fermentation” for nearly 10 million years! This means humankind has had a great deal of evolutionary time to adapt itself to the presence of alcohol, which will likely change how the presence and prevalence of alcoholism is understood.
A team led by biologist Matthew Carrigan of Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, discovered that the digestive enzyme ADH4 was first found plentifully in the gorilla. ADH4 breaks down alcohol beginning on the tongue and continuing through the throat and stomach. Without the ability to produce this enzyme, our distant ancestors would not have consumed fermented foods because of resultant stomach pain, nausea and other physical discomforts.
The article states “In that period, our hominid ancestors- consumers of tree fruits all- increasingly came down from the trees” where they would encounter fallen fruit, colonized by yeast and in various stages of fermentation/decomposition. Naturally, those that could eat that fruit would be at a competitive advantage over those that could not. They would have been more likely to come down from the trees…and stay down, as well as survive lean growing seasons by utilizing this resource that was past its “best when used by” date.
Who knew? If it were not for alcohol we might still be living in trees. The “family tree” might be literal.
The article goes on to say “Our 10 million-year-old relationship with alcohol should come as no surprise, the authors of the latest research suggest. It coincides with the middle Miocene climatic transition, a period of rapid environmental change in which the fragmented forest ecosystems of East Africa were giving way to grassland ecosystems.”
Okay, a couple points here. One, how was the climate changing so fast and ‘climatically’? There were no factories or cows to emit greenhouse gases. There was no coal-burning, no United States, no China. Nary a Koch brother could be found.
Two, how did the planet survive…indeed thrive after this calamity? Humans evolved long after the Miocene transition, traumatic as it was. There was a relative few of us even then. Now there are seven billion plus.
Recent global warming after the last ice age give us our beautiful northern lakes region. Now it appears far earlier climate change eventually gave us beer, ale, Chardonnay and Tanqueray!
I’ll drink to that.



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