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Identification of differences in human and great ape phytanic acid metabolism that could influence gene expression profiles and physiological functions

Paul A Watkins1, Ann B Moser1, Cicely B Toomer1, Steven J Steinberg1, Hugo W Moser1, Mazen W Karaman2, Krishna Ramaswamy2, Kimberly D Siegmund3, D Rick Lee4, John J Ely4, Oliver A Ryder5 and Joseph G Hacia2*

Author Affiliations

1 Hugo W. Moser Research Institute at Kennedy Krieger, and Department of Neurology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, 21205, USA

2 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, 90089, USA

3 Department of Preventive Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA

4 Alamogordo Primate Facility, New Mexico, NM 88330, USA

5 Institute for Conservation and Research, Zoological Society of San Diego, Escondido, CA 92027, USA

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BMC Physiology 2010, 10:19  doi:10.1186/1472-6793-10-19

Published: 8 October 2010



It has been proposed that anatomical differences in human and great ape guts arose in response to species-specific diets and energy demands. To investigate functional genomic consequences of these differences, we compared their physiological levels of phytanic acid, a branched chain fatty acid that can be derived from the microbial degradation of chlorophyll in ruminant guts. Humans who accumulate large stores of phytanic acid commonly develop cerebellar ataxia, peripheral polyneuropathy, and retinitis pigmentosa in addition to other medical conditions. Furthermore, phytanic acid is an activator of the PPAR-alpha transcription factor that influences the expression of genes relevant to lipid metabolism.


Despite their trace dietary phytanic acid intake, all great ape species had elevated red blood cell (RBC) phytanic acid levels relative to humans on diverse diets. Unlike humans, chimpanzees showed sexual dimorphism in RBC phytanic acid levels, which were higher in males relative to females. Cultured skin fibroblasts from all species had a robust capacity to degrade phytanic acid. We provide indirect evidence that great apes, in contrast to humans, derive significant amounts of phytanic acid from the hindgut fermentation of plant materials. This would represent a novel reduction of metabolic activity in humans relative to the great apes.


We identified differences in the physiological levels of phytanic acid in humans and great apes and propose this is causally related to their gut anatomies and microbiomes. Phytanic acid levels could contribute to cross-species and sex-specific differences in human and great ape transcriptomes, especially those related to lipid metabolism. Based on the medical conditions caused by phytanic acid accumulation, we suggest that differences in phytanic acid metabolism could influence the functions of human and great ape nervous, cardiovascular, and skeletal systems.