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Humans march to a faster genetic 'drummer' than primates, UC Riverside research says

A team of biochemists from UC Riverside published a paper in the June 11 issue of the Journal of Molecular Biology that gives one explanation for why humans and primates are so closely related genetically, but so clearly different biologically and intellectually.

It is an established fact that 98 percent of the DNA, or the code of life, is exactly the same between humans and chimpanzees. So the key to what it means to be human resides in that other 2 percent.

According to Achilles Dugaiczyk, professor of Biochemistry at UCR, one important factor resides in something called Alu DNA repeats, sometimes called "junk DNA." These little understood sections of DNA are volatile, and prone to sudden mutations, or genomic rearrangements. At times the results are beneficial in that they give rise to new proteins or an altered gene regulation. Sometimes the mutations result in the growth of a cancer tumor, or some other genetic defect.

The team, which also included Rosaleen Gibbons, Lars J. Dugaiczyk, Thomas Girke, Brian Duistermars and Rita Zielinski, identified over 2,200 new human specific Alu DNA repeats that are absent from the chimpanzee and most likely other primates.

"The explosive expansion of the DNA repeats and the resulting restructuring of our genetic code may be the clue to what makes us human," Dugaiczyk said. "During the same amount of time, humans accumulated more genetic novelties than chimpanzees, making the human/chimpanzee genetic distance larger than that between the chimpanzee and gorilla."

Metaphorically speaking, Dugaiczyk said, "Humans and primates march to the rhythm of a drum that looks identical; the same size, shape and sound. But, the human drum beats faster."

This chemical analysis of DNA structures also showed something else. The spread of the Alu DNA repeats was written into the chemistry of human chromosomes. The process was not random, Dugaiczyk said, and it was not subject to an environme
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Contact: Kris Lovekin
kris.lovekin@ucr.edu
951-827-2495
University of California - Riverside
30-Aug-2004


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