Selecting for kuru resistant cannibals
New Scientist reports on a new study on how a gene that gives protection against the deadly brain disease kuru became more common in people exposed to the condition through their cannibalistic tradition of eating the bodies of dead relatives.
Kuru is a prion disease, meaning the damage is caused by a poorly arranged or folded protein molecule which can trigger the same damaging changes in other proteins it comes into contact with.
The condition is related to what we know as 'mad cow disease' and causes a distinctive form of shaking, brain degeneration and eventually leads to death. It was restricted to the South Fore people of Papua New Guinea who seemed to pass on the condition by their tradition of to eating deceased relatives at mortuary feasts.
This new study shows that over time a new variant of the PRNP gene emerged in the population which gave protection against kuru.
Just to be safe, you might want to scratch brains-in-oyster-sauce from the Thanksgiving menu.