BOSTON — The taste for alcohol may be an ancient craving. The ability to metabolize ethanol — the alcohol in beer, wine and spirits — might have originated in the common ancestor of chimpanzees, gorillas and humans roughly 10 million years ago, perhaps when this ancestor became more terrestrial and started eating fruits fermenting on the ground.
Chemist Steven Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Fla., reached that conclusion by “resurrecting” the alcohol-metabolizing enzymes of extinct primates. Benner and his colleagues estimated the enzymes’ genetic code, built the enzymes in the lab and then analyzed how they work to understand how they changed over time.
“It’s like a courtroom re-enactment,” said biochemist Romas Kazlauskas of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Benner “can re-enact what happened in evolution.”
Benner proposed the idea February 15 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Today, humans rely on an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase 4, or ADH4, to break down ethanol. The enzyme is common throughout the esophagus, stomach and intestines, and is the first alcohol-metabolizing enzyme that comes into contact with what a person drinks. Among primates, not all ADH4s are the same — some can’t effectively metabolize ethanol.
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