Coordination of fetal maturation with birth timing is essential for mammalian reproduction. In humans, preterm birth is a disorder of profound global health significance. The signals initiating parturition in humans have remained elusive, due to divergence in physiological mechanisms between humans and model organisms typically studied. Because of relatively large human head size and narrow birth canal cross-sectional area compared to other primates, we hypothesized that genes involved in parturition would display accelerated evolution along the human and/or higher primate phylogenetic lineages to decrease the length of gestation and promote delivery of a smaller fetus that transits the birth canal more readily. Further, we tested whether current variation in such accelerated genes contributes to preterm birth risk. Evidence from allometric scaling of gestational age suggests human gestation has been shortened relative to other primates. Consistent with our hypothesis, many genes involved in reproduction show human acceleration in their coding or adjacent noncoding regions. We screened >8,400 SNPs in 150 human accelerated genes in 165 Finnish preterm and 163 control mothers for association with preterm birth. In this cohort, the most significant association was in FSHR, and 8 of the 10 most significant SNPs were in this gene. Further evidence for association of a linkage disequilibrium block of SNPs in FSHR, rs11686474, rs11680730, rs12473870, and rs1247381 was found in African Americans. By considering human acceleration, we identified a novel gene that may be associated with preterm birth, FSHR. We anticipate other human accelerated genes will similarly be associated with preterm birth risk and elucidate essential pathways for human parturition.
The control of birth timing in humans is the greatest unresolved question in reproductive biology, and preterm birth is the most important medical issue in maternal and child health. To begin to address this critical problem, we test the hypothesis that genes accelerated in their rate of evolution in humans, as compared with other primates and mammals, are involved in birth timing. We first show that human gestational length has been altered relative to other non-human primates and mammals. Using allometric scaling, we demonstrate that human gestation is shorter than predicted based upon gestational length in other mammalian species. Next, we show that genes with rate acceleration in humans—in coding or regulatory regions—are plausible candidates to be involved in birth timing. Finally, we find that polymorphisms in the human accelerated gene (FSHR), not before implicated in the timing for birth, may alter risk for human preterm birth. Our understanding of pathways for birth timing in humans is limited, yet its elucidation remains one of the most important issues in biology and medicine. The evolutionary genetic approach that we apply should be applicable to many human disorders and assist other investigators studying preterm birth.