Sialic acids are nine carbon sugars ubiquitously found on the surfaces of vertebrate cells and are involved in various immune response-related processes. In humans, at least 58 genes spanning diverse functions, from biosynthesis and activation to recycling and degradation, are involved in sialic acid biology. Because of their role in immunity, sialic acid biology genes have been hypothesized to exhibit elevated rates of evolutionary change. Consistent with this hypothesis, several genes involved in sialic acid biology have experienced higher rates of non-synonymous substitutions in the human lineage than their counterparts in other great apes, perhaps in response to ancient pathogens that infected hominins millions of years ago (paleopathogens). To test whether sialic acid biology genes have also experienced more recent positive selection during the evolution of the modern human lineage, reflecting adaptation to contemporary cosmopolitan or geographically-restricted pathogens, we examined whether their protein-coding regions showed evidence of recent hard and soft selective sweeps. This examination involved the calculation of four measures that quantify changes in allele frequency spectra, extent of population differentiation, and haplotype homozygosity caused by recent hard and soft selective sweeps for 55 sialic acid biology genes using publicly available whole genome sequencing data from 1,668 humans from three ethnic groups. To disentangle evidence for selection from confounding demographic effects, we compared the observed patterns in sialic acid biology genes to simulated sequences of the same length under a model of neutral evolution that takes into account human demographic history. We found that the patterns of genetic variation of most sialic acid biology genes did not significantly deviate from neutral expectations and were not significantly different among genes belonging to different functional categories. Those few sialic acid biology genes that significantly deviated from neutrality either experienced soft sweeps or population-specific hard sweeps. Interestingly, while most hard sweeps occurred on genes involved in sialic acid recognition, most soft sweeps involved genes associated with recycling, degradation and activation, transport, and transfer functions. We propose that the lack of signatures of recent positive selection for the majority of the sialic acid biology genes is consistent with the view that these genes regulate immune responses against ancient rather than contemporary cosmopolitan or geographically restricted pathogens.
Copyright © 2018 Moon et al.