This is the sixth of eight posts on evolutionary research to celebrate Darwin’s bicentennial.
Physically, we are incredibly different from our ape cousins but genetically, it’s a different story. We famously share more than 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, our closest living relatives. Our proteins are virtually identical and our chromosomes have more or less the same structure. At the level of the nucleotide (the “letters” that build strands of DNA), little has happened during ape evolution. These letters have been changing at a considerably slower rate than in our relatives than in other groups of mammals.
But at the level of the gene, things are very different. Entire parts of the genome can be duplicated or deleted and the rate at which this happens has actually accelerated in the primate lineage. Some families of genes (including many that play important roles in the brain) have expanded and contracted with remarkable speed.
Duplication provides raw fuel for rapid evolution by creating back-up copies of parts of the genome. If mutations with harmful effects crop up in one of these copies, there’s always a spare kicking around to take up the slack. So duplicated segments of the genome become relatively free to pick up new mutations and unsurprisingly, they are often very dynamic places that change with incredible speed.
Today, they make up about 5% of the human genome and have probably been a major driving force in the ape evolution. Now, Tomas Marques-Bonet from the University of Washington has reconstructed the evolutionary history of these duplications by comparing them across the genomes of four primates – humans, chimpanzees, orang-utans and macaques.
Using computer programmes, he produced a “comparative map” that revealed duplications unique to each of these four genomes, along with those that are shared between them. The map showed that about a third of the duplications in the human genome are unique to us, and most of the remaining duplications are ones we share with chimps.
The rate at which these duplications cropped up had greatly accelerated in the part of the primate family tree that includes humans and the African great apes. These rates doubled and hit their peak in the last common ancestor of ourselves and chimpanzees. As a result, both chimps and humans have far more of these doubles than either orang-utans or macaques. This burst of activity coincided with a time when other types of mutation, such as changes to single nucleotides, were slowing down. Marques-Bonet thinks that these accelerated rates of gene duplication played a pivotal role in the success and evolution of the great apes.