Rhesus genome sequencing to help scientists in research

Researchers at the Genome Sequencing Center (GSC) at the School of Medicine were major contributors to the rhesus macaque monkey genome that was made publicly available via online databases this month.

The rhesus genome, the second non-human primate to be sequenced and assembled, is estimated to share about 92 percent to 95 percent of its sequence with the human genome.

Elaine Mardis
Elaine Mardis

Elaine Mardis, Ph.D., co-director of the GSC and assistant professor of genetics and of molecular microbiology, says the rhesus genome is important both because the rhesus is frequently used as a model in medical research and because it provides a valuable viewpoint for studying the chain of evolutionary developments that lead from non-human primates to humans.

“Rhesus are widely used in research that improves human health,” Mardis said. “Chimps are not susceptible to the simian form of HIV, but rhesus are, so they are particularly valuable for AIDS research.

“Rhesus are also key models of human drug metabolism — when a pharmaceutical company determines dosages for humans for a specific drug, that is typically done with the rhesus monkey as a model system.”

From an evolutionary point of view, the rhesus’ genome will help scientists determine whether some of the genetic differences between chimpanzees and humans originated in the chimpanzee genome or the human genome.

“The rhesus represents a key transition point in evolution from Old World monkeys to hominids and great apes — such as humans, chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans,” Mardis said.

The rhesus macaque’s natural habitat covers a range of territory in southeast Asia that includes Afghanistan, northern India and southern China. It is closely related to three other primates that are widely used in research: the baboon, cynomolgus macaques and pig-tailed macaques.

Other collaborators on the rhesus genome assembly included scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine Human Genome Sequencing Center in Houston and the Joint Technology Center at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md.

The National Human Genome Research Institute gave $22 million for the sequencing, which took two years.

The GSC is contributing to the sequencing of three additional primate genomes: the orangutan genome, the common marmoset and a partial sequencing of the gibbon genome.