A Go­rilla Named Susie Il­lus­trates Genome Sim­i­lar­i­ties with Hu­mans

The Economic Times - - Global Business -

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?”

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