A staggering 4000 million people cannot digest lactose, the sugar in milk, properly. All mammals, apart from white Northern Europeans and few tribes in Africa and Asia, lose most of their lactase, the enzyme that cleaves lactose into galactose and glucose, after weaning. Lactose intolerance
causes gut and a range of systemic symptoms, though the threshold to lactose varies considerably between ethnic groups and individuals within a group. The molecular basis of inherited hypolactasia has yet to be identified, though two polymorphisms in the introns of a helicase upstream from
the lactase gene correlate closely with hypolactasia, and thus lactose intolerance. The symptoms of lactose intolerance are caused by gases and toxins produced by anaerobic bacteria in the large intestine. Bacterial toxins may play a key role in several other diseases, such as diabetes, rheumatoid
arthritis, multiple sclerosis and some cancers. The problem of lactose intolerance has been exacerbated because of the addition of products containing lactose to various foods and drinks without being on the label. Lactose intolerance fits exactly the illness that Charles Darwin suffered from
for over 40 years, and yet was never diagnosed. Darwin missed something else – the key to our own evolution – the Rubicon some 300 million years ago that produced lactose and lactase in sufficient amounts to be susceptible to natural selection.
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Document Type: Research Article
Department of Medical Biochemistry and Immunology, Wales College of Medicine, Cardiff University, Cardiff, CF14 XN, UK
Publication date: 2005-08-15
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