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Tuesday, 22 August, 2000, 15:41 GMT 16:41 UK
Calls to crack chimp genome
Chimps are 99 percent genetically identical to humans
US scientists are calling for an international effort to decode the genome of the chimpanzee.

They believe the project could explain why humans, and not chimps, succumb to diseases like Aids and malaria.

But some researchers are sceptical about the plans.

They fear much of the genetic data would be meaningless or confusing.

The drive to sequence the genome of great apes is being spearheaded by Ajit Varki, Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego.

"The chimpanzee and the bonobo share nearly 99 percent of human genomic sequences," he told the journal Genome Research.

"Knowing the complete genome of at least one of these species will give us a window into genes that contribute to 'human-ness'."

Fighting Aids

The main imperative for a primate genome project is to find out why humans develop certain diseases that other primates are immune to.

HIV virus
Chimps are immune to the HIV virus
Learning about the genetic differences between chimps and humans could help in the search for new treatments for human diseases as diverse as Aids, Alzheimer's, malaria and cancer.

Diseases that kill humans in large numbers usually have little impact on the lives of great apes.

Most strikingly, chimps infected with the HIV virus do not get Aids. And, despite sharing a gene that predisposes humans to getting Alzheimer's disease, chimps do not develop the condition.

Professor Morris Goodman of Wayne State University, USA, is one of the supporters of the project.

"There's a big effort now to persuade the groups that are concerned with large-scale genome sequencing that they should undertake a primate genome project," he told BBC News Online.

Genetic cousins

Knowing the genetic make-up of the chimp might shed light on human characteristics such as our big brains and complex social behaviour.

And a primate genome project could also aid conservation efforts, by raising public awareness of the close genetic relationship between humans and other primates.

But Professor Grahame Bulfield, director of the Roslin Institute, Scotland, famous for cloning Dolly the sheep, questioned the value of sequencing the genome of primates.

"The mere fact that there are only one or two percent genetic differences between chimps and human beings still means that they are going to differ in many thousands of DNA sequences," he told BBC News Online.

"Working out which ones are responsible for the differences between chimps and humans and, of those, which are important in the diseases that differ between chimps and humans is a very difficult problem."

Meanwhile, scientists in Japan have already begun decoding the genomes of great apes in a separate venture.

The initiative, known as Project Silver, aims to compare gene expression in chimps and humans.

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02 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
Aids origin 'discovered'
16 Jun 99 | Sci/Tech
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11 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
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