A little gorilla in us all


sn-gorillas.jpg Genomic gorilla. Researchers have completely sequenced the DNA of Kamilah, a 35-year-old western lowland gorilla living at the San Diego Zoo. PHOTO/San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Ever since the human genome was sequenced a decade ago, researchers have dreamed about deciphering DNA from our three great ape cousins as well. Now the final remaining genome, that of the gorilla, is in hand, and it reveals interesting connections between us and them. Surprisingly, parts of our genome are more similar to the gorilla’s than they are to the chimp’s, and a few of the same genes previously thought key to our unique evolution are key to theirs, too.

Today there are four groups of great apes: chimps and bonobos, humans, gorillas, and orangutans. The genome of the chimp—our closest relative—was published in 2005; the orangutan sequence came out in early 2011. Now researchers have analyzed the DNA of a western lowland gorilla named Kamilah, who lives at the San Diego Zoo. In addition, they sequenced DNA from three other gorillas, including one eastern lowland gorilla, a rare species estimated at only 20,000 individuals. “It’s essential to have all of the great ape genomes in order to understand the features of our own genome that make humans unique,” says Gregory Wray, an evolutionary biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who was not involved in the study. Adds paleoanthropologist David Begun of the University of Toronto in Canada: “It will allow us to begin to identify genetic changes specific to humans since our divergence from chimps.”

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