Our lab is situated in close proximity to a high concentration of fraternity houses, and as the fall term commences the warm autumn atmosphere reeks of fresh loose-leaf, cheap beer, and hang-over bacon. Any truly savvy and overindulgent undergrad should be writing a little thank-you note to one of the crucial factors that enables this year-opening bash: the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). This little microbrew miracle has been helping humans indulge in handcrafted libations for around nine thousand years and is perfectly suited to this function. Or is it? A recent study questions the evolutionary history of ADH and suggests that it might have more important things to do than aid in our enjoyment of an evening martini.
Given that enzymes are integral components of so much of our body chemistry, it can be hard to remember that they haven’t always been there. Just like everything else, they had to come, to evolve, from somewhere. ADH is no exception. These days, it’s studied as the first enzyme in the metabolic pathway helping us to break down ingested alcohol (ethanol). Without it, we couldn’t efficiently clear alcohol from our systems and it could accumulate to lethal levels over the course of a lively cocktail party. In fact, one form of the enzyme acts in our stomachs, starting to break down the intoxicating molecule before it ever reaches our bloodstream. But where and how did ADH evolve? Were the molecules in our prehistoric ancestors preparing for a time when our species would start breaking out the booze?
The rules of enzyme evolution parallel those of organism evolution: an ecological (or functional) niche has to exist before the process of natural selection can result in something filling that niche. In the case of ADH this means the availability of ingestible alcohol. If there is no dietary alcohol to break down, there should be no enzyme evolution specifically to break it down. By far, the greatest source of alcohol available for animal consumption is fermentation of fruit sugars, so the appearance of fruit in the prehistoric world should predate that of ADH. This is assuming that ADH really did evolve to break down alcohol. It is this assumption that is being questioned by a group of Mexican scientists.
In a sobering study examining the functional capacities and evolutionary histories of a range of ADH enzymes, the real purpose of human ADH was called into question. In actuality, humans have several forms of ADH from three very different classes of enzyme using very different means to achieve ethanol transformation. Only one class of ADH is considered to be important for human alcohol breakdown. As it turns out, this class of ADH evolved before the appearance of fruit-bearing plants. That is to say that the type of enzyme we use today to reduce both inhibitions and alcohol toxicity showed up before there was any alcohol to indulge in.
If ADH’s only job was to enable aperitifs, it would not have evolved to do so before the functional niche existed. Instead, it is more likely that ADH has a somewhat serendipitous ability to metabolize the alcohol we drink, and we exploit that ability. In fact, all of the human ADHs are better at catalyzing transformation of different (non-liquor-related) compounds in our bodies, such as bile acids and serotonin. It seems that the party-pleasing activity human ADH is best known for is a handy trick this enzyme would file under “other abilities.”