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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Microcephaly genes evolved adaptively throughout the evolution of eutherian mammals

Stephen H Montgomery1* and Nicholas I Mundy2

Author Affiliations

1 Department Genetics, Evolution & Environment, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK

2 Department Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:120  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-120

Published: 5 June 2014



Genes associated with the neurodevelopmental disorder microcephaly display a strong signature of adaptive evolution in primates. Comparative data suggest a link between selection on some of these loci and the evolution of primate brain size. Whether or not either positive selection or this phenotypic association are unique to primates is unclear, but recent studies in cetaceans suggest at least two microcephaly genes evolved adaptively in other large brained mammalian clades.


Here we analyse the evolution of seven microcephaly loci, including three recently identified loci, across 33 eutherian mammals. We find extensive evidence for positive selection having acted on the majority of these loci not just in primates but also across non-primate mammals. Furthermore, the patterns of selection in major mammalian clades are not significantly different. Using phylogenetically corrected comparative analyses, we find that the evolution of two microcephaly loci, ASPM and CDK5RAP2, are correlated with neonatal brain size in Glires and Euungulata, the two most densely sampled non-primate clades.


Together with previous results, this suggests that ASPM and CDK5RAP2 may have had a consistent role in the evolution of brain size in mammals. Nevertheless, several limitations of currently available data and gene-phenotype tests are discussed, including sparse sampling across large evolutionary distances, averaging gene-wide rates of evolution, potential phenotypic variation and evolutionary reversals. We discuss the implications of our results for studies of the genetic basis of brain evolution, and explicit tests of gene-phenotype hypotheses.

ASPM; Adaptive evolution; Brain size; CDK5RAP2; Mammals; Microcephaly genes; Neurogenesis