Humans are different from other species in many ways, but one potentially useful way is that our birth canals are so narrow when compared to our relatively large heads. When this difference first became apparent, evolution had to kick in relatively quickly to make sure mothers and their babies survived the trauma of birth. That meant a shorter pregnancy to produce a baby the right size. Scientists believe there must be some kind of signature contained within the human genome that shows this accelerated evolution. Find the appropriate genes, and perhaps find a way to predict modern human phenomena such as preterm births. And that's what researchers from Vanderbilt University, Washington University and the University of Helsinki have done.
Writing in the open-access journal PLoS Genetics, they report that variations in the follicle stimulating hormone receptor might be responsible for a woman's risk of delivering her baby prematurely.
"Ideally we'd like to predict which women are at greatest risk for having preterm birth and be able to prevent it," Vanderbilt's Louis Muglia said in a news release. "That would really have an impact on infant mortality and the long-term complications of being born prematurely."
Ronald Lamont, a spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told the BBC that while he applauds the research and the people doing it, genetics do not tell the whole story when it comes to premature births.
"In the future we will be able to identify a percentage of people at risk. It won't be the be all and end all, but it will contribute to our knowledge," Lamont told the BBC.