Gorilla genome sequenced

March 7, 2012
Male silverback Gorilla in SF zoo. Image: Wikipedia.

The assembly of the gorilla genome was announced today, March 7, by a multi-national group of researchers. The gorilla is the last genus of the living great apes to have its genome decoded. While confirming that our closest relative is the chimpanzee, the team showed that much of the human genome more closely resembles the gorilla than it does the chimpanzee genome.

This is the first time scientists have been able to compare the genomes of all four living great apes: humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. This study provides a new perspective on human origins and is an important resource for research into human evolution and biology, as well as for gorilla biology and conservation.

Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom lead the study, with contributions from several other institutions, including the University of Washington.

“The gorilla genome is important because it sheds light on the time when our ancestors diverged from our closest evolutionary cousins. It also lets us explore the similarities and differences between our genes and those of the gorilla, the largest living primate,” said Aylwyn Scally, first author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. “Using DNA from Kamilah, a female western lowland gorilla, we assembled a gorilla genome sequence and compared it with the genomes of the other great apes. We also sampled DNA sequences from other gorillas in order to explore genetic differences between gorilla species.”

The team searched more than 11,000 genes in human, chimpanzee and gorilla for genetic changes important in evolution. Humans and chimpanzees are genetically closest to each other over most of the genome, but the team found many places where this is not the case.  Some 15 percent of the human genome is closer to the gorilla genome than it is to chimpanzee, and 15 percent of the chimpanzee genome is closer to the gorilla than human.

“This finding suggests a quite rapid process of speciation and explains why it is so difficult to differentiate the three species in a very important period of our evolution,"  said Dr. Tomas Marques, who worked on this project when he was a postdoctoral student at the University of Washington and Howard Hughes Medical Institute genome science lab of Dr. Evan Eichler. “We noticed that the reconstruction of human evolution is more complex than we had anticipated.”

The researchers also called attention to fact that ear shape is one of the few external physical traits in which humans look more like gorilla than chimps.

In all three species, genes relating to sensory perception, hearing and brain development showed accelerated evolution, particularly so in humans and gorillas.

“Our most significant findings reveal not only differences between the species reflecting millions of years of evolutionary divergence, but also similarities in parallel changes over time since their common ancestor,” said Dr. Chris Tyler-Smith, senior author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.  “We found that gorillas share many parallel genetic changes with humans including the evolution of our hearing. Scientists had suggested that the rapid evolution of human hearing genes was linked to the evolution of language. Our results cast doubt on this, as hearing genes have evolved in gorillas at a similar rate to those in humans.”

“The study of certain categories of genes, such as those linked to hearing perception, shows that they seemed to evolved more rapidly in humans and gorillas in parallel,” said Marques. The finding is new and unusual, he said, because some of these genes had been previously linked to aspects of behavior thought to be intrinsically human.

The research team's observations were consistent with studies showing a major role for adaptive modifications in sensory perception and brain development in hominines (great apes and human-like creatures), such as a genetic basis for blood flow modifications allowing for larger brains.

In gorilla evolution, one of the most significantly accelerated genes, the researchers, said may be related to the leathery texture of gorilla knuckle pads.  Gorillas often drag their knuckles along the ground when they walk.

Other genes comparatively examined were those possibly related to growth hormones, sperm function, and defense against viruses.

The researchers also mentioned that, in several cases, a genetic variation thought to cause disease in humans was associated with a normal state in gorillas.  Striking examples, they said, were variants linked to dementia and dangerously enlarged hearts in humans.

This paper also illuminates the timing of splits between species. Although we commonly think of species diverging at a single point in time, this does not always reflect reality: species can separate over a long period of time.

The team found that divergence of gorillas from humans and chimpanzees occurred around ten million years ago. The split between eastern and western gorillas was much more recent, in the last million years or so, and was gradual, although they are now genetically distinct. This split is comparable in some ways to the split between chimpanzees and bonobos, or modern humans and Neanderthals.

The researchers also noticed greater genetic diversity in the western versus the eastern lowland genetic samples.  This finding is consistent with the smaller population of eastern lowland gorillas, which is merely one-tenth of the 200,000 estimated living western lowland gorillas.

“Because it manifests in genetic diversity, this disparity must have existed for many millennia, and cannot have resulted solely from the current pressure of human activity in central Africa or recent outbreaks of the Ebola virus,” the authors surmised.

In the Middle Miocene epoch many kinds of great apes lived throughout Europe, Asia and Africa.

Since then, the authors note, the story of great ape evolution has told of fragmentation and extinction. People are the only remnant of the genus Homo. All of the other human-like primates vanished.

Gorillas survive today in just a few isolated and endangered populations in the equatorial forests of central Africa. They are severely threatened and their numbers are diminishing. This research not only provides new information about human evolution, but also highlights the importance of protecting and conserving the full diversity of these remarkable species, the researchers said.

“As well as teaching us about human evolution,” the authors wrote, “the study of great apes connects us to a time when our existence was more tenuous, and in so doing, teaches us the importance of protecting and conserving these remarkable le species."

“Our research completes the genetic picture for overall comparisons of the great apes,” said Dr. Richard Durbin, senior author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, “After decades of debate, our genetic interpretations are now consistent with the fossil record and provide a way for paleontologists and geneticists to work within the same framework.

“Our data are the last genetic piece we can gather for this puzzle. There are no other living great ape genera to study.”

The UW's role in this project was to use previous knowledge of the great ape genomes to assess the quality of the gorilla genome assembly, especially in the more complex regions that are difficult to annotate. The UW researchers also applied their experience in studying the composition of structural variations in the gorilla genome to other great apes and humans, and to comparing the rates of variations among gorillas and humans.

Explore further: World's most endangered gorilla fights back

More information: Scally et al. 'Insights into hominid evolution from the gorilla genome sequence' Nature, March 8 DOI:10.1038/nature10842

Related Stories

World's most endangered gorilla fights back

December 5, 2007

In the wake of a study that documented for the first time the use of weaponry by Cross River gorillas to ward off threats by humans, the Wildlife Conservation Society announced today new field surveys to better protect this ...

Study garners unique mating photos of wild gorillas

February 12, 2008

Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have released the first known photographs of gorillas performing face-to-face copulation in the wild. This is the first ...

Pubic hair provides evolutionary home for gorilla lice

February 11, 2009

There are two species of lice that infest humans: pubic lice, Pthirus pubis, and human head and body lice, Pediculus humanus. A new article in BioMed Central's open access Journal of Biology suggests one explanation for the ...

Playful minds: Gorillas play games just like we do

January 22, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Gorillas play competitive games like we do, helping to keep games going and even giving younger friends a fair chance, according to the latest research. The study, by psychologists at the University of St ...

Climate change and evolution of Cross River gorillas

April 1, 2011

Two species of gorillas live in central equatorial Africa. Divergence between the Western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) and Eastern Gorillas (G. beringei) began between 0.9 and 1.6 million years ago and now the two species live ...

DNA duplications may be responsible for genomic-based diseases

December 28, 2011

An important part of saving a species is often understanding its DNA. Through a collaborative effort including 14 scientists representing organizations across Europe and the United States, researchers have been able to analyze ...

Recommended for you

Researchers design first artificial ribosome

July 29, 2015

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University have engineered a tethered ribosome that works nearly as well as the authentic cellular component, or organelle, that produces all the proteins ...

Studies reveal details of error correction in cell division

July 29, 2015

Cell biologists led by Thomas Maresca at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with collaborators elsewhere, report an advance in understanding the workings of an error correction mechanism that helps cells detect and ...

Researchers discover new type of mycovirus

July 29, 2015

Researchers, led by Dr Robert Coutts, Leverhulme Research Fellow from the School of Life and Medical Sciences at the University of Hertfordshire, and Dr Ioly Kotta-Loizou, Research Associate at Imperial College, have discovered ...

Stressed out plants send animal-like signals

July 29, 2015

University of Adelaide research has shown for the first time that, despite not having a nervous system, plants use signals normally associated with animals when they encounter stress.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Mar 07, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
0.4 / 5 (28) Mar 07, 2012
"but highlights the importance of protecting and conserving the full diversity of these remarkable species."

5 / 5 (5) Mar 07, 2012
"but highlights the importance of protecting and conserving the full diversity of these remarkable species."

My friend, I know you are aware of what I am about to say, you are rightfully seeking to ascertain the 'awareness' of the rest of humanity: HUMANITY...how we treat others, our associations and dependencies so often can bless us with timely, life saving knowledge or doom us to an antiquity that covers us in contempt and disdain. The existence of these apes, gives context to our greatness! It says that man, IS RELATED, to the fauna and flora of his world and YET has the vision that exceeds that of all other species combined due to his native role as caregiver and life-taker of ALL other species. In fact the more we know of all other life the more human and...humane we tend to become. Man is related but not supreme in his flesh, man is not an alien 2 this world but has a station that lets him consider the future for all who live. It is best that such a 'friend' be wise!
5 / 5 (3) Mar 07, 2012
What rights do gorilla's have?

Not as many as you, Your Excellent Vendi-ness, but, I have heard a rumour...just a rumour...that a fair sampling of apes, having been scientifically selected... have expressed ecstatic gratitude that YOU do not come to any family reunions any more...! Oh well...I guess the family of Man will have to keep a chair at the table for you! (Oh hey, looks like we will be selling the new iPad at the store, so I am discounting the old iPads and the 8-Gig iPod touch's we have left...show me the money!)

Mar 07, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
0.2 / 5 (25) Mar 07, 2012
In fact the more we know of all other life the more human and...humane we tend to become.

I disagree the more we learn about biology the more we will realize we are just complex biological machines that are a product of their environment they grew up in.
The more excuses the elite have to treat us like working machines.
We are becoming less humane, not more. This great ape will not change that fact.
4.2 / 5 (5) Mar 07, 2012
The more excuses the elite have to treat us like working machines.

You don't HAVE to work,.. you are free to die in a gutter, but even animals understand they need to work to stay alive.
0.1 / 5 (22) Mar 07, 2012
You don't HAVE to work,.. you are free to die in a gutter, but even animals understand they need to work to stay alive.

Animals dont work hard like we do. It depends really on the species. Ants do work hard, but they are made for that. Humans aren't made to work hard. Some humans work hard in construction and completely damage their backs. There are much more examples of humans over-working, and most of it is for nothing.

And you really think dying in a gutter is a choice you can make? I dont think so, everyone tries to survive even homeless people.
not rated yet Mar 07, 2012
Animals dont work hard like we do.

You're basically right. Predatory animals like Crocodiles or big cats pretty much just eat, sleep, and have sex.

Even cattle on a farm don't do anything except eat and sleep all day long.
0 / 5 (21) Mar 08, 2012
Animals dont work hard like we do.

You're basically right. Predatory animals like Crocodiles or big cats pretty much just eat, sleep, and have sex.

Even cattle on a farm don't do anything except eat and sleep all day long.

The only animal i can think of that works really hard is ants. Maybe birds and hamsters when they build nests but they only do this once in a while.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.