Rhesus monkey genome reveals DNA similarities with chimps and humans

*Sequence of orangutan and marmoset also completed*

Scientists have decoded the genome of the rhesus macaque monkey and compared it with the genomes of humans and their closest living relatives – the chimps – revealing that the three primate species share about 93 percent of the same DNA.

Richard Wilson, director for the Genome Sequencing Center, discusses what sequencing DNA from the macaque and other primates means for humans.

The sequencing was completed by an international consortium of researchers, including scientists at the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and is published in a special section of the April 13 issue of the journal Science.

In related news, Washington University scientists recently completed the raw sequences for the orangutan and marmoset genomes. Analysis of these genomes and a comparison with human and the other primates will be carried out over the next several months. The National Human Genome Research Institute, one of the National Institutes of Health, funded all three sequencing projects.

“Having this growing portfolio of primate genomes will allow us to better understand the important biology that underlies the information encoded in the genome sequences,” said Richard K. Wilson, Ph.D., director of the Genome Sequencing Center. “We’ll be able to gain clues as to why humans and some primates develop certain cancers and other diseases, while other primates do not.”

By placing the human genome alongside those of the other primates, scientists can identify all the molecular changes that separate the various species. On a practical level, this work is likely to help determine how and when genetic alterations associated with certain diseases, including hepatitis, malaria and Alzheimer’s disease, crept into the genome and why non-human primates do not develop such illnesses.

Genome sequencing involves determining the precise order of the 3 billion letters – a combination of As, Cs, Gs and Ts – that make up the animal’s DNA. DNA was derived from a blood sample taken from each primate; no animals were harmed as part of this research.

The macaque genome is the second non-human primate, after the chimp, to have its genome sequenced and the first Old World monkey to have its DNA deciphered. The macaque genome is important because it is more distant to the human than the chimp or the orangutan genomes. This means that important genome features that are conserved through evolution can be more easily seen by comparing the macaque to human.

“Having in hand the genomes of primates more distantly related to humans than the chimp will give researchers an opportunity to determine the precise changes in each of the genomes over the course of evolution, from macaques to marmosets to orangutan, chimps and humans,” Wilson added. “This is important because macaques and marmosets also serve as a valuable model for studying human infectious diseases, such as HIV, and for vaccine research.

Independent assemblies of the rhesus genome data were carried out at the Baylor College of Medicine, Washington University and the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md. Baylor also collaborated with Washington University on sequencing the orangutan and marmoset.

The rhesus, chimp and human genome sequences, along with those for other organisms such as the mouse, rat, dog, cow, honey bee, roundworm and yeast, can be accessed at GenBank (www.ncbi.nih.gov/Genbank) at NIH’s National Center for Biotechnology Information. The orangutan and marmoset genome sequences can be accessed at the Genome Sequencing Center’s website (genome.wustl.edu).

Washington University School of Medicine’s full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.