A gorilla named Susie illustrates genome similarities with humans

Apr 5, 2016

Photo credit: Reuters/Columbus Zoo

By Will Dunham

A gorilla named Susie is helping provide fresh insight into the genetic similarities and differences between people and these endangered apes that are among our closest living relatives.

Scientists on Thursday unveiled an upgraded version of the gorilla genome based on DNA from Susie, an 11-year-old Western lowland gorilla at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, that fills in many gaps present in the first gorilla genetic map published in 2012.

The new research revealed that gorillas and humans are slightly more closely related genetically than previously recognized, with the genomes diverging by just 1.6 percent. Only chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related to humans.

The new genome shows that some areas of genetic differences include: the immune and reproductive systems; sensory perception; the production of keratin, a key protein in the structure of hair, fingernails and skin; and the regulation of insulin, the hormone that governs blood sugar levels.

“The differences between species may aid researchers in identifying regions of the human genome that are associated with higher cognition, complex language, behavior and neurological diseases,” said University of Washington genetic researcher Christopher Hill, one of the lead authors of the study published in the journal Science.

“Having complete and accurate reference genomes to compare allows researchers to uncover these differences,” Hill added.


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4 comments on “A gorilla named Susie illustrates genome similarities with humans

  • From what I understand these 1.6 difference is mainly in hox genes (body plan genes) that specify quantities like brain size, hair thickness, …

    These genes are kind of “abstract” genes that are NOT involved in details of making proteins but they control other genes. So they are very small because they don’t need to encode a lot of information and small changes in them result in significant differences.

    As an example is the gene (or part of the gene) that controls the brain size. A small mutation in this gene results in microcephaly (children with small head/brain size). Children with this abnormality are mentally disabled.

    Surprisingly the same gene is different between human and chimps that results in human brain to be much larger.

    Another example is a very small mutation on FoxP2 gene that enables human to speak while chimps don’t have the same mutation.

    I am wondering if with existence of these important genes is it still wise to compare animals with the percentage of difference between their genes ?

    Similarly is it wise to say human are very similar as their genes are very similar ?

    What if similar insignificant mutations exist between human (and may be even between different nations) that don’t make them too different from genetic point of view but makes them very different practically ?



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  • peyman #1
    Apr 9, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    What if similar insignificant mutations exist between human (and may be even between different nations) that don’t make them too different from genetic point of view but makes them very different practically ?

    Perhaps you mean something like adaptation to high altitude!

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v512/n7513/full/nature13408.html

    Altitude adaptation in Tibetans caused by introgression of Denisovan-like DNA

    As modern humans migrated out of Africa, they encountered many new environmental conditions, including greater temperature extremes, different pathogens and higher altitudes. These diverse environments are likely to have acted as agents of natural selection and to have led to local adaptations. One of the most celebrated examples in humans is the adaptation of Tibetans to the hypoxic environment of the high-altitude Tibetan plateau1, 2, 3. A hypoxia pathway gene, EPAS1, was previously identified as having the most extreme signature of positive selection in Tibetans4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and was shown to be associated with differences in haemoglobin concentration at high altitude. Re-sequencing the region around EPAS1 in 40 Tibetan and 40 Han individuals, we find that this gene has a highly unusual haplotype structure that can only be convincingly explained by introgression of DNA from Denisovan or Denisovan-related individuals into humans. Scanning a larger set of worldwide populations, we find that the selected haplotype is only found in Denisovans and in Tibetans, and at very low frequency among Han Chinese. Furthermore, the length of the haplotype, and the fact that it is not found in any other populations, makes it unlikely that the haplotype sharing between Tibetans and Denisovans was caused by incomplete ancestral lineage sorting rather than introgression. Our findings illustrate that admixture with other hominin species has provided genetic variation that helped humans to adapt to new environments.



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  • Alan4discussion #2

    That’s an interesting example but I was thinking about mutations that can result in minute differences in brain structure, size or capabilities that will eventually result in small differences in attributes like intelligence, stamina, ability to work hard …

    And this small differences when accumulated over many people and over time can affect the culture.
    So can we conclude that cultural differences between nations can eventually be traced back to such SMALL genetic differences (That mainly affect the brain) ?

    There is also an interesting theory about this called Dual Inheritance Theory that discusses the co-evolution of genes and culture.

    Not sure how much this theory has been proven or whether scientist have been able to identify genetic differences between nations that can result in cultural differences (Especially those genetic differences that affect nervous system).



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  • peyman #3
    Apr 10, 2016 at 11:17 am

    There is also an interesting theory about this called Dual Inheritance Theory that discusses the co-evolution of genes and culture.

    There are certainly extreme examples of where the culture has moulded the genetic inheritance!

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/08/1-in-200-men-direct-descendants-of-genghis-khan/#.Vwpy4zFHpVk

    In 2003 a groundbreaking historical genetics paper reported results which indicated that a substantial proportion of men in the world are direct line descendants of Genghis Khan. By direct line, I mean that they carry Y chromosomes which seem to have come down from an individual who lived approximately 1,000 years ago. As Y chromosomes are only passed from father to son, that would mean that the Y is a record of one’s patrilineage.



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