Gene duplication adapts to changing environment

ANN ARBOR --- As scientists piece together the genomes of more and more life forms---from fruit flies to humans---they're finding ample evidence that new genes have often been created through the duplication of existing genes. Of the more than 40,000 genes in the human genome, for example, about 15,000 appear to have been produced by gene duplication.

Evolutionary theories assert that some of these duplicated genes may acquire new functions and take on new roles. But exactly how do these changes occur? And do they, as scientists suspect, really help organisms adapt to their environments?

New answers to these questions come from a study of leaf-eating monkeys by researchers at the University of Michigan, the National Institutes of Health, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In the work, published online March 4 by Nature Genetics, U-M's Jianzhi Zhang and colleagues show how a duplicated copy of a gene encoding a pancreatic enzyme has evolved to help the monkeys cope with an unusual diet.

The monkeys belong to a subfamily of Old World monkeys called colobines, says Zhang, an assistant professor in the Departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology.

"Colobines are different from other monkeys in that they primarily eat leaves rather than fruit or insects, and leaves are very difficult to digest," he explains. But the monkeys manage with a digestive system similar to a cow's. Bacteria in the gut ferment the leaves and take up nutrients that are released in the process.

The monkeys, in turn, digest the bacteria to recover the nutrients, such as protein and ribonucleic acid (RNA), a particularly important source of nitrogen in leaf eaters.

Zhang and colleagues were particularly interested in a pancreatic enzyme, RNASE1, which breaks down bacterial RNA. Most primates have one gene encoding the enzyme, but the researchers found that the douc langur, a colobine monke

Contact: Nancy Ross-Flanigan
University of Michigan

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