A Gorilla Named Susie Illustrates Genome Similarities with Humans
Washington: AgorillanamedSusieis helping provide fresh insight into the genetic similarities and differences between people and these endangered apes that are among our closest living relatives.
Scientists on Thursday unveiled an upgradedversionofthegorillagenome based on DNA from Susie, an 11-yearold western lowland gorilla at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, that fills in many gaps present in the first gorilla genetic map published in 2012.
The new research revealed that gorillasandhumansareslightlymoreclosely related genetically than previously recognized, with the genomes diverging by just 1.6%. Only chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related to humans.
The new genome shows that some areas of genetic differences include: the immune and reproductive systems; sensory perception; the production of keratin, a key protein in the structure of hair, fingernails and skin; and the regulationofinsulin,thehormonethat governs blood sugar levels.
“The differences between species may aid researchers in identifying regions of the human genome that are associated with higher cognition, complex language, behaviour and neurological diseases,” said University of Washington genetic researcher Christopher Hill, one of the lead authors of the study published in the journal Science.
“Having complete and accurate reference genomes to compare allows researchers to uncover these differences,” Hill added.
The University of Washington lab that spearheaded the study is working tocreateacomprehensivecatalogueof genetic differences between humans and the great apes: gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos.
Recent studies have estimated that the gorilla and human evolutionary lineages split about 12 million to 8.5 million years ago, Hill said. Gorillas are the world’s largest primates, the mammalian group that includes lemurs, monkeys, apes and humans. Adult males reach up to about 200kg.
Gorillas spend about half their time munching on stems, bamboo shoots and a number of fruits. Their populations are threatened by human activities such as habitat destruction and poaching for bushmeat.
A blood sample from Susie provided the basis for the genome sequencing. What could it possibly be like to be old? The stooped s hu f f l e , t he h a l t i n g speech, the dimming senses. A n e x h i bit at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, answers the question by letting you walk a proverbial mile in your elders’ orthopaedic shoes. Slip into the R70i Age Suit, a robotic contraption complete with “augmented reality” goggles, and suddenly you are 85. It is not very pleasant. An attendant cranks up a fader and your vision dissolves into melty, grayed-out blobs, like a memorablyunvividpsyche d e l i c e x p e r i e nc e . “This is called agerelated macular degeneration,” the suit’s inventor, Bran Ferren, said at a preview Thursday.
More knobs twiddle and your hearing is subsumed in a fog of tinnitus, muffling and distortion. A dose of echo is added to the sound mix, interrupting your speaking and simulating the effects of aphasia. Now it was time to move about. Loaded with hardware and a computer, the suit itself weighs 40 pounds, distributed as uncomfortably as possible. “It’s going to get much worse,” promised Ferren, a noted special effects designer. “You haven’t lived.”
I raised an arm, as if to reach up on a shelf, and the suit’s system of torquers and electronic discbrakessprangintoaction.It feltlikemyjointshadbecomeentirely ungreased. I could barely lift my arm above my shoulder. Ferren invited me onto a treadmill. I hobbled up. Why does your grandfather move so slowly? Because, apparently, walking across the parking lot for him feels like hour three of a hike up a mountain, wearing an overstuffed, lopsided backpack. (This may also explain why he’s cranky.)
“So far you’ve walked about a half block and your heart i s beati ng at 13 0 beats a minute,” he said.
The aging suit induced a remarkable amount of frustration, depression and hopelessness.Ifdoingeventhemostbasic tasks of daily living is this much trouble, you wonder, why bother? But it also makes you a little less likely to lose patience and a little more likely to feel empathy withtheolderpeopleinyourlife.
The latter is the main point of the exhibit, which is sponsored by Genworth Financial, a company that sells long-term care insurance. “How do you start people talking about these things which they are averse to talking about?” said Ferren, whose mother has an incurable, degenerative disease. “And if what you require is live-in care, how do you pay for that?”