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Most blood plasma proteins are glycosylated. These glycoproteins typically carry sialic acid-bearing sugar chains, which can modify the observed molecular weights and isoelectric points of those proteins during electrophoretic analyses. To explore changes in protein expression and glycosylation that occurred during great ape and human evolution, we subjected multiple blood plasma samples from all these species to high-resolution proteomic analysis. We found very few species-specific differences, indicating a remarkable degree of conservation of plasma protein expression and glycosylation during approximately 12 million years of evolution. A few lineage-specific differences in protein migration were noted among the great apes. The only obvious differences between humans and all great apes were an apparent decrease in transthyretin (prealbumin) and a change in haptoglobin isoforms (the latter was predictable from prior genetic studies). Quantitative studies of transthyretin in samples of blood plasma (synthesized primarily by the liver) and of cerebrospinal fluid (synthesized locally by the choroid plexus of the brain) confirmed approximately 2-fold higher levels in chimpanzees compared to humans. Since transthyretin binds thyroid hormones, we next compared plasma thyroid hormone parameters between humans and chimpanzees. The results indicate significant differences in the status of thyroid hormone metabolism, which represent the first known endocrine difference between these species. Notably, thyroid hormones are known to play major roles in the development, differentiation, and metabolism of many organs and tissues, including the brain and the cranium. Also, transthyretin is known to be the major carrier of thyroid hormone in the cerebrospinal fluid, likely regulating delivery of this hormone to the brain. A potential secondary difference in retinoid (vitamin A) metabolism is also noted. The implications of these findings for explaining unique features of human evolution are discussed.

Original publication




Journal article


Am j phys anthropol

Publication Date





99 - 109


Animals, Blood Proteins, Blotting, Western, Glycoproteins, Hominidae, Humans, Proteome, Thyroid Hormones, Vitamin A