Open Access Open Badges Short report

Diverse captive non-human primates with phytanic acid-deficient diets rich in plant products have substantial phytanic acid levels in their red blood cells

Ann B Moser1, Jody Hey2, Patricia K Dranchak3, Mazen W Karaman3, Junsong Zhao3, Laura A Cox4, Oliver A Ryder5 and Joseph G Hacia3*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Neurogenetics, Hugo W. Moser Research Institute at Kennedy Krieger, Baltimore, MD, 21205, USA

2 Department of Genetics, Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ, 08854, USA

3 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA

4 Department of Genetics, Southwest National Primate Research Center, Texas Biomedical Research Institute, San Antonio, TX, 78227, USA

5 Institute for Conservation and Research, Zoological Society of San Diego, Escondido, CA, 92027, USA

For all author emails, please log on.

Lipids in Health and Disease 2013, 12:10  doi:10.1186/1476-511X-12-10

Published: 4 February 2013



Humans and rodents with impaired phytanic acid (PA) metabolism can accumulate toxic stores of PA that have deleterious effects on multiple organ systems. Ruminants and certain fish obtain PA from the microbial degradation of dietary chlorophyll and/or through chlorophyll-derived precursors. In contrast, humans cannot derive PA from chlorophyll and instead normally obtain it only from meat, dairy, and fish products.


Captive apes and Old world monkeys had significantly higher red blood cell (RBC) PA levels relative to humans when all subjects were fed PA-deficient diets. Given the adverse health effects resulting from PA over accumulation, we investigated the molecular evolution of thirteen PA metabolism genes in apes, Old world monkeys, and New world monkeys. All non-human primate (NHP) orthologs are predicted to encode full-length proteins with the marmoset Phyh gene containing a rare, but functional, GA splice donor dinucleotide. Acox2, Scp2, and Pecr sequences had amino acid positions with accelerated substitution rates while Amacr had significant variation in evolutionary rates in apes relative to other primates.


Unlike humans, diverse captive NHPs with PA-deficient diets rich in plant products have substantial RBC PA levels. The favored hypothesis is that NHPs can derive significant amounts of PA from the degradation of ingested chlorophyll through gut fermentation. If correct, this raises the possibility that RBC PA levels could serve as a biomarker for evaluating the digestive health of captive NHPs. Furthermore, the evolutionary rates of the several genes relevant to PA metabolism provide candidate genetic adaptations to NHP diets.

Phytanic acid; Chlorophyll; Old world monkeys; New world monkeys; Peroxisome