a1 Galton Laboratory, Department of Biology, Wolfson House, 4 Stephenson Way, London NW1 2HE, UK
The diversity of the human genome leads to many functional differences between individuals. The present review focuses on genetic variations, both rare and common, that are of relevance to digestion of the sugars and starches that form a major part of human diets, and considers these in relation to the evolution of our species. For example, intolerances of dietary saccharides are not usually life-threatening because symptoms can be avoided by removal of the offending sugar from the diet, and deficiencies of the relevant enzymes are in some cases found at relatively high frequencies in certain populations. This is of evolutionary interest in relation to changes in the human diet, and the lactase-persistence polymorphism, in particular, provides an interesting model. More of the world's adult population are lactase-deficient than have high lactase. The other deficiencies are however much more rare, but the significance of variant alleles at these loci, and also heterozygosity for deficiency alleles, to human nutrition and health is an area that is relatively unexplored.