The genetic history of great apes

11 July 2013

BPRC - 1. The genetic history of great apes

Until now, little was known about the genetic variation within the great apes, due to the difficulty in obtaining samples from apes. An international group of more than 75 researchers, including BPRC staff, and conservationists have joined efforts to make a comprehensive analysis of the genetic background of these animals at the population level.

To achieve this, the genetic code was determined from six ape species: chimpanzee, bonobo, Sumatran orangutan, Bornean orangutan, eastern and western lowland gorilla. In addition, the genetic codes of 9 human individuals were included in the analysis. This is the most comprehensive mapping of the genetic background of apes to date.

The study results that were published in Nature, offer an in-depth insight into the genetic history of the apes covering a period of 15 million years. In a related article in Genome Research, the scientists also show evidence of a genetic disease in chimpanzees, closely resembling the Smith-Magenis syndrome in man. One of the chimpanzees that were once housed at the BPRC had symptoms of the disease (e.g. obesity, rage-prone, curved spine). Genetic characterization of materials that have been preserved in the freezer has made it possible to detect the genetic cause of this disease.

The wealth of information that is now available on the genetic code of primates, may thus lead to new insights into the genetic background of diseases and susceptibility to human diseases. This research can significantly contribute to the conservation of great apes in the wild, where one wants to maintain the natural genetic diversity of the animals.