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Academic Minute

Dr. Michael Wasserman, McGill University – Soy Diets and Primate Evolution

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Michael Wasserman of McGill University describes his research project examining the role of soy in primate diets.

Michael Wasserman is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Anthropology at McGill University.  His research interests include the ecological and evolutionary relationship of wild primates and estrogenic plants, the use of noninvasive methods to examine ecological and anthropogenic correlates of stress and reproductive physiology in primates, and interactions between human and non-human primate diet and the endocrine system. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

About Dr. Wasserman

Dr. Michael Wasserman – Soy Diets and Primate Evolution

Most of us consume soy on a regular basis.  We do this either knowingly in foods like tofu or unknowingly in processed foods, many of which are now made with soy by-products.  Soy contains phytoestrogens.  These are estrogen-like compounds naturally made by plants. And what’s interesting about phytoestrogens is that they can affect biological processes in animals, including ourselves.  Because these plant compounds interact with our endocrine system, there are worries about their effects on our fertility and sexual development.  But they may also provide benefits by protecting us from cancer and alleviating some of the symptoms of menopause.

By looking at what our closest-living relatives, monkeys and apes, eat in their natural environment, we can gain insight into the benefits and dangers of consuming estrogenic foods.  Red colobus monkeys and mountain gorillas living in the forests of Uganda depend upon plants to meet their nutritional needs. They mostly eat the leaves of tropical trees, vines, and herbs.  By screening these plants for estrogenic activity, our team of researchers found that about 11% of the red colobus diet and 9% of the gorilla diet contains phytoestrogens.  And the estrogenic plant food that is consumed most often by the red colobus is closely related to soy.

We are now looking into how these plants affect the endocrine system of the red colobus. We will also be examining the presence of phytoestrogens in the diets of fruit-eating primates, like the chimpanzee.  This research should help us understand how long humans have been eating estrogenic plant foods over our evolutionary history.  The dominance of soy in our foods is a recent trend, but the consumption of estrogenic plants may not be.  

The red colobus were observed in Kibale National Park by Michael Wasserman and the mountain gorillas were studied in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park by Jessica Rothman (Anthropology, Hunter College – CUNY). Plants were analyzed for estrogenic activity by Wasserman in the laboratory of Dale Leitman (Nutritional Science & Toxicology, University of California-Berkeley).

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