Researchers uncover brain patterns that differentiate humans from chimpanzees

A team of international researchers from Germany, the Netherlands and San Diego may have shed light on why chimps and humans are so genetically similar (nearly 99 percent of shared DNA sequences), and yet so mentally different.

In a study published in the April 12, 2002 issue of the journal Science, the scientists noted that the striking difference between these primate cousins is most evident in their brains. The disparity appears to be the result of evolutionary differences in gene and protein expression, the manner in which coded information in genes is activated in the brain, then converted into proteins that carry out many cellular functions.

The brain differences are more a matter of quantity than quality. Differences in the amount of gene and protein expression, rather than differences in the structure of the genes or proteins themselves, distinguish the two species.

In addition, the researchers noted that the manner in which genes are expressed from the brain shows more differences than other parts of the two primates bodies, such as the liver and white blood cells. Why these evolutionary differences occurred is still unknown.

The researchers first compared blood and liver samples for levels of messenger RNA, an intermediary step between DNA and protein production. As expected, they found humans were closer to chimps in these measures than chimps were to macaque monkeys.

In striking contrast, the human brain showed more messenger RNA differences when compared to the chimp brain, indicating a far greater rate of evolutionary change in gene expression. Moreover, chimpanzee and macaque gene expression patterns were more similar to each other than to the human pattern. The researchers also found unique differences in expression of proteins in the human brain. Thus, humans seem to have sped up the rate of change of gene expression selectively in their brains, accumulating expression differences at least five tim

Contact: Sue Pondrom
University of California - San Diego

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