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Massive DNA Study Reveals New Insights Into Ape, Humans Evolutionary Journey

Update Date: Jul 03, 2013 11:34 PM EDT

Scientists have put together the most comprehensive model of the Great Ape history going back 15 million years.

Published July 3 on the online edition of the journal Nature, the study - the largest of its kind - has catalogued the genetic variations in humans, chimps, gorillas and orangutans into a massive database of great ape genetic diversity.

"[The study] will help conservation efforts that seek to preserve their natural genetic diversity," said co-author Richard K. Wilson, PhD, director of The Genome Institute at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where much of the genome sequencing was performed.

A joint investigative effort that counted with the expertise of 75 scientists and wildlife conservationists from around the world, this study analyzed 79 wild and captive-born great apes, representing all six great ape species: chimpanzee, bonobo, Sumatran orangutan, Bornean orangutan, eastern gorilla and western lowland gorilla, and seven subspecies.

In addition, the study also included the genomes of nine humans -- part of the great ape family, as well.

"This is fascinating research. Besides telling us many interesting things about the genetic relationships and diversity among our close relatives, the study provides some important lessons regarding how our own genome responds to the pressure of population changes," Wilson said.

According to project leader, Tomas Marques Bonet, PhD, of the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas-Universitat Pompeu Fabra) in Spain, genetic variation in the great ape family was largely unknown.

"It has always been very difficult to obtain genetic specimens from wild apes of different regions of the globe," he said.

The present study leveraged the efforts of conservationists in many countries, some of them in dangerous or isolated locations, helped in this recent effort, and the research team credits them for the success of the project.

"Gathering this data is critical to understanding differences between great ape species and separating aspects of the genetic code that distinguish humans from other primates," said co-first author Peter Sudmant, a graduate student at the University of Washington. 

The study reveals ways that natural selection, population growth and collapse, geographic isolation and migration, climate and geological changes and other factors shaped primate evolution.

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