BACKGROUND - The onset of birth in humans, like other apes, differs from non-primate mammals in its endocrine physiology. We hypothesize that higher primate-specific gene evolution may lead to these differences and target genes involved in human preterm birth, an area of global health significance.
METHODS - We performed a comparative genomics screen of highly conserved noncoding elements and identified PLA2G4C, a phospholipase A isoform involved in prostaglandin biosynthesis as human accelerated. To examine whether this gene demonstrating primate-specific evolution was associated with birth timing, we genotyped and analyzed 8 common single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in PLA2G4C in US Hispanic (n = 73 preterm, 292 control), US White (n = 147 preterm, 157 control) and US Black (n = 79 preterm, 166 control) mothers.
RESULTS - Detailed structural and phylogenic analysis of PLA2G4C suggested a short genomic element within the gene duplicated from a paralogous highly conserved element on chromosome 1 specifically in primates. SNPs rs8110925 and rs2307276 in US Hispanics and rs11564620 in US Whites were significant after correcting for multiple tests (p < 0.006). Additionally, rs11564620 (Thr360Pro) was associated with increased metabolite levels of the prostaglandin thromboxane in healthy individuals (p = 0.02), suggesting this variant may affect PLA2G4C activity.
CONCLUSIONS - Our findings suggest that variation in PLA2G4C may influence preterm birth risk by increasing levels of prostaglandins, which are known to regulate labor.