Get access

The origins and evolution of genetic disease risk in modern humans


Address for correspondence: Bernard J. Crespi, Department of Biosciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B. C., Canada V5A 1S6.


Patterns and risks of human disease have evolved. In this article, I review evidence regarding the importance of recent adaptive evolution, positive selection, and genomic conflicts in shaping the genetic and phenotypic architectures of polygenic human diseases. Strong recent selection in human populations can create and maintain genetically based disease risk primarily through three processes: increased scope for dysregulation from recent human adaptations, divergent optima generated by intraspecific genomic conflicts, and transient or stable deleterious by-products of positive selection caused by antagonistic pleiotropy, ultimately due to trade-offs at the levels of molecular genetics, development, and physiology. Human disease due to these processes appears to be concentrated in three sets of phenotypes: cognition and emotion, reproductive traits, and life-history traits related to long life-span. Diverse, convergent lines of evidence suggest that a small set of tissues whose pleiotropic patterns of gene function and expression are under especially strong selection—brain, placenta, testis, prostate, breast, and ovary—has mediated a considerable proportion of disease risk in modern humans.