Munch Lab

Gorilla genome reveals our ancestry as genetic patchwork

The chimpanzee is our closest cousin in the tree of life. Humans and chimpanzees split into separate species about 5-6 million years ago. The gorilla is more remotely related to both humans and chimpanzees separating about 8 million years ago. Today the Gorilla genome is published in Nature revealing surprising properties of our own genetic history. As expected most of our genes are most similar to the ones of the chimpanzee, but it turns out that about many of our genes are more like gorilla genes than chimpanzee genes. The genetic material on chromosomes is mixed in sexual reproduction making each gene free follow its own path through evolution. Because human, chimpanzee and chimpanzee are quite equally related this results in mix of genes different kinds of relatedness. For most genes humans-and chimpanzees are most related, but 15% of chimpanzee genes are more related to the gorilla than to our genes and 15% of our genes are gorillas are more related to gorillas than to chimpanzees.

kamilahWe have elucidated this genetic patchwork that reflects the evolutionary history of humans, chimpanzees and gorillas. Analyzing these patterns has allowed us to firmly establish how important natural selection is to evolution of these species. They find that the genetic variation is smaller genes compared to the genome average because that natural selection removes mutations that disrupt gene function. The bioinformatical approach we apply is unique because it combines the analysis of genetics within species with the genetics between species, combining these two traditionally separated fields into one model. Our analyses also illuminate the process by which western and eastern gorillas split into separate sub-species. Although we commonly think of such speciations as happing at a distinct point in time, this does not always reflect reality. This study shows that the separation into western and eastern gorillas happened over an extended period of time.

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