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201222Dec13:44

Major source of evo­lu­tion­ary dif­fer­ences among species uncovered

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pub­lished 22 Decem­ber 2012 | mod­i­fied 22 Decem­ber 2012
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Chimp gelsenkirchenUni­ver­sity of Toronto (U of T) Fac­ulty of Med­i­cine researchers have uncov­ered a genetic basis for fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences between humans and other ver­te­brates that could also help explain why humans are sus­cep­ti­ble to dis­eases not found in other species.

Sci­en­tists have won­dered why ver­te­brate species, which look and behave very dif­fer­ently from one another, nev­er­the­less share very sim­i­lar reper­toires of genes. For exam­ple, despite obvi­ous phys­i­cal dif­fer­ences, humans and chim­panzees share a nearly iden­ti­cal set of genes.

The fact that alter­na­tive [genetic mes­sages] splic­ing is very dif­fer­ent even between closely related ver­te­brate species could ulti­mately help explain how we are unique
Ben­jamin Blencowe, Uni­ver­sity of Toronto, Bant­ing and Best Depart­ment of Research and the Depart­ment of Mol­e­c­u­lar Genet­ics »


The team sequenced and com­pared the com­po­si­tion of hun­dreds of thou­sands of genetic mes­sages in equiv­a­lent organs, such as brain, heart and liver, from 10 dif­fer­ent ver­te­brate species, rang­ing from human to frog. They found that alter­na­tive splic­ing — a process by which a sin­gle gene can give rise to mul­ti­ple pro­teins — has dra­mat­i­cally changed the struc­ture and com­plex­ity of genetic mes­sages dur­ing ver­te­brate evo­lu­tion.

The results, pub­lished in the Decem­ber 21 issue of Sci­ence, sug­gest that dif­fer­ences in the ways genetic mes­sages are spliced have played a major role in the evo­lu­tion of fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tics of species. How­ever, the same process that makes species look dif­fer­ent from one another could also account for dif­fer­ences in their dis­ease sus­cep­ti­bil­ity.

The same genetic mech­a­nisms respon­si­ble for a species’ iden­tity could help sci­en­tists under­stand why humans are prone to cer­tain dis­eases such as Alzheimer’s and par­tic­u­lar types of can­cer that are not found in other species,” says Nuno Barbosa-​Morais, the study’s lead author and a com­pu­ta­tional biol­o­gist in U of T Fac­ulty of Medicine’s Don­nelly Cen­tre for Cel­lu­lar and Bio­mol­e­c­u­lar Research. “Our research may lead to the design of improved approaches to study and treat human dis­eases.”

One of the team’s major find­ings is that the alter­na­tive splic­ing process is more com­plex in humans and other pri­mates com­pared to species such as mouse, chicken and frog.

Our obser­va­tions pro­vide new insight into the genetic basis of com­plex­ity of organs such as the human brain,” says Ben­jamin Blencowe, Pro­fes­sor in U of T’s Bant­ing and Best Depart­ment of Research and the Depart­ment of Mol­e­c­u­lar Genet­ics, and the study’s senior author. “The fact that alter­na­tive splic­ing is very dif­fer­ent even between closely related ver­te­brate species could ulti­mately help explain how we are unique.”


(Source: Uni­ver­sity of Toronto media release, 20.12.2012)
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