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When members of the Fore people in Papua New Guinea died, others would eat the dead person's brain during funeral rituals as a mark of respect. Kuru passed on in this way killed at least 2500 Fore in the 20th century until the cause was identified in the late 1950s and the practice halted.
Identification of kuru and how it was spread helped researchers identify how BSE – mad cow disease – spread through the feeding of infected cattle brains to other animals, and how this eventually led to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which has killed 166 people so far in the UK.
Simon Mead of the British prion research centre at University College London says the discovery of an "anti-kuru" gene is the most clear-cut evidence yet of human evolution in action.
"I hope it will become a textbook example of how evolution happens," he says. "It's a striking and timely example.' New Scientist
The mutation first arose about 200 years ago by accident in a single individual, who then passed it down to his or her descendants. "When the kuru epidemic peaked about 100 years back, there were maybe a couple of families who found that they and their children survived while all their neighbours were dying, and so on to today's generation, who still carry the gene," says Mead. "So it was a very sudden genetic change under intense selection pressure from the disease," he says.