U of Washington researchers develop more complete gorilla genome

U of Washington researchers develop more complete gorilla genomeScientists from the Eichler Lab at the University of Washington have made use of advanced sequencing methods to come up with an even more complete gorilla genome. This updated, improved genome shows great potential in further proving how humans relate to the great apes.

Researchers first sequenced the Western lowland gorilla genome in 2012, coming up with the GorGor3 genome that still had over 400,000 gaps in it. But with the use of long-read sequencing technology, the Eichler team had closed more than 90 percent of the gaps found in the first genome.

“One of the goals of the Eichler lab is to create a comprehensive catalogue of known genetic differences between humans and other great apes,” said study co-author Christopher Hill. “The differences between species may aid researchers in identifying regions of the human genome that are associated with cognition, behavior, and neurological diseases. Having complete and accurate reference genomes to compare allows researchers to uncover these differences.”

The new “Susie3” genome was based on that taken from Susie, a Western lowland gorilla at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. And, as Hill says, this genome isn’t just extraordinarily complete in relation to the first one, but also capable of hinting at some never-before seen findings on lowland gorillas and how they evolved. He said that earlier studies proved that the gorilla population went through a “bottleneck” about 50,000 years ago, but this bottleneck had a larger impact than once thought.

“Furthermore, patterns of genetic variation within the gorilla genome can provide evidence of how disease, climate change, and human activity affect lowland gorilla populations,” Hill added.

Due to the success of Hill and his co-researchers in filling in the gaps of the first gorilla genome, this could lead to other endeavors where genomes of other great apes, including chimpanzees, orangutans, and other species of gorilla, are completed. This could help in coming up with groundbreaking findings on how primates behave and think, according to the researchers themselves.

“I’d like to see a re-doing of all the great ape genomes, including chimpanzee and orangutan, to get a comprehensive view of the genetic variants that distinguish humans from the great apes,” said lead researcher Evan Eichler. “I believe there is far more genetic variation than we had previously thought. The first step is finding it.”