How vitamins have shaped human biology and evolution

by | Oct 11, 2023

Vitamins play a much broader role than just promoting health, shaping and maintaining our unique biology over evolutionary timescales.
Vegetables on a table.

“Eat your fruit and vegetables!” These foods are packed with essential nutrients, including vitamins, the health benefits of which have been drummed into us since childhood.

We understand that vitamins play a crucial role in preventing disease and maintaining our overall health. But to what extent do they shape our physical characteristics and how have they contributed to our evolution as a species?

Mark Lucock, associate professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia is pushing for a new paradigm of thinking in this area and is revolutionizing the way we might think about vitamins beyond just health and well being.

“[Vitamins] contribute to shaping and maintaining the human phenome, the fingerprint of an individual’s unique biology defined by complex environmental and genetic factors over lifecycle and evolutionary timescales,” Lucock explained in an email.

Spanning a lengthy career, Lucock says the concept of “vitomics and adaptive vitome”, a term he coined for this concept has evolved over several years, dating back to when he was studying folic acid and vitamin D.

He defines it as follows: “Vitamin related actions that adapt an organism’s metabolism/biology to a specific environmental condition(s) within, across and beyond the lifecycle.”

This is different to the traditional and perhaps more one-dimensional view of vitamins, which focuses on their overall health benefits and ability to prevent deficiencies, such as rickets or scurvy.

According to Lucock, this more traditional view has little appreciation for the long-term evolutionary role vitamins play in adapting our biology to environmental conditions over time and their importance in our prenatal development.

Acknowledging these extended functions aids our understanding of evolution and highlights that vitamins are even more important than already known.   

Vital for life

From embryo development to childhood, adulthood and old age, vitamins are central to metabolic function and vital for cellular processes that support life. They not only influence small molecules within cells but help direct the organization of these cells and their programming to perform specific functions during embryo development.

For example, in a complex interplay, environmental conditions as well as nutrients and vitamins, such as folic acid, influence the DNA in our genes, turning them on or off. These early controls can impact our health in later life and even predispose us to risk of disease.

However, balance is key because you can have too much of a good thing with excessive levels of certain vitamins, like vitamin A, being toxic and can lead to birth defects.

Turning genes on and off is an example of the short-term effects of vitamins for individual people, but it is their long-term effects on human evolution that Lucock proposes in this new way of thinking about them. A prime example is the proposed evolutionary role of vitamin D and folate in skin pigmentation.

Both vitamin D and folate are sensitive to sunlight, but in opposite ways. Sunlight helps produce vitamin D in the skin whereas ultraviolet (UV) rays break down folate. Because both these vitamins are needed for reproduction, biological mechanisms have evolved over time to protect them and ensure survival of our species.

Evolutionary belief is that our ancestors originated in hot equatorial regions of Africa with strong sun and UV rays, so pigmentation in the skin increased to protect folate, leading to a darker skin. However, when our ancestors moved north where there was less sun, less pigmentation was needed to protect folate. Simultaneous changes in culture, especially the development of farming, may have also influenced this change.

“As hunter gatherers, our early diet was rich in vitamin D (particularly from fish and meat), but after the development of farming practices, grains became a significant dietary component, leading to a deficit in vitamin D ,” explained Lucock. “Given the importance of vitamin D in maintaining reproductive efficiency, natural selection will have favored a loss in skin melanin to allow for improved vitamin D photosynthesis in our skin.”

These examples illustrate the contribution of vitamins beyond just health, and begin to paint a bigger picture of their importance to humans as a species.

Zooming out  

Recent advances in laboratory techniques have allowed the measurement of thousands of cellular small molecules related to DNA, proteins, and metabolism. To understand these vast and complex interactions within biological systems, scientists are adopting a “systems biology” approach that looks at the bigger picture by analyzing these interconnected molecules to understand how they fit together and how whole systems work.   

With individual roles in cell function, embryo development, and evolution, Lucock argues it is time to put the pieces together, and adopt an integrated approach when researching the role of vitamins in human biology.  

“Society will benefit from such a paradigm, which examines the larger picture (a tapestry of all the smaller pieces),” explained Lucock. “Previous generations tended to be reductionists, looking at taking these pieces apart. I think it will be easier for the average person to embrace the bigger picture than consider the minutiae when looking how living systems interact within and across the lifecycle.”

We are still learning about the role of vitamins in these areas and this new concept may facilitate  new learning.

“New discoveries involving vitamins in molecular, developmental and evolutionary biology requires a more integrated perspective that embraces a broader, more attuned role for vitamins in life processes,” explains Lucock. It is hoped that adopting this integrated approach will facilitate new scientific discoveries, kick starting a new era for vitamins.

Reference: Lucock, M, D, Vitomics: A novel paradigm for examining the role of vitamins in human biology, Bioassays (2023). DOI: 10.1002/bies.202300127

Feature image credit: Unsplash

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