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On a quest to understand what has made us human – A special edition of The Biochemist

Posted by , on 27 October 2015

As developmental biologists, we are fascinated by the ability of an organism to become, from a single fertilised egg, a fully functional individual. However, as human beings we are equally curious about how the Homo sapiens species arose and became different to all other animals on the planet. As a group of students from the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology at King’s College London we won the opportunity to explore this issue in depth as guest commissioners and editors for The Biochemist magazine.

In this special issue, published this month, arguably the place to start was in the oceans around 3.5 billion years ago: Nick Lane, the author of bestselling science books including “Life Ascending” and “Power, sex, suicide” explored how the first living cells formed multicellular organisms and why energy is the driving force of evolution.

Of course, we wouldn’t be who we are without our brains! Learn about how the first neuronal proteins and structures evolved 500 million years ago from Dwayne Godwin and Melissa Masicampo in our second article.

Continuing in the exploration of the nervous system, Maria Martínez-Martínez and Víctor Borrell look at the size of the cortex as the core of human uniqueness.

The brain is not, however, the only thing that makes us different to other animals. The way we digest food, especially lactose, is also uniquely important for understanding our evolutionary history. Read the wonderful article by Dallas Swallow to find out more about how our ability to digest milk has made us who we are today.

All the information we possess about our evolutionary history and the genes that make us human awaits a tremendous boost of detailed new data that can be gathered from the now available genomic databases. Rebecca Lowdon and Devjanee Swain-Lenz look at the ENCODE project and assess how it can help us understand our past, but also allow us to shape our own future as a species.

To put it all in context, read a succinct introduction written by members of our team: Rebecca McIntosh and Danielle Stevenson with a handy timeline drawn by Tristan Varela.

We have had great fun commissioning the articles and thank all our contributors. We are confident you will find the issue stimulating and fascinating and hope that it will help you on your own quest to understand what has made you human.

The whole issue can also be read here:

This post was written by Michalina Hanzel

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