Campus & Community

Chimp genome effort shines light on human evolution

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Broad Institute and Washington University lead the decoding effort

A research effort, led by scientists at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and the University of Washington, Seattle, focused on the chimpanzee in hopes that genetic comparisons with humanity’s closest relative will lead to answers to both practical questions – such as the causes of human disease – and to more fundamental questions on human biology.

In addition to their obvious physical differences, humans and chimpanzees have different responses to Alzheimer’s disease, malaria, and HIV/AIDS, for example.

“We’re focusing on the differences as a way to shed light on ourselves,” said Eric Lander, Broad Institute director and professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School, who led the project along with Richard Wilson of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Robert Waterston of the University of Washington, Seattle. “This is a case where evolutionary analysis is a direct handmaiden to biomedicine.”

Among the 3 billion base pairs in the DNA of both humans and chimpanzees, researchers found differences in 40 million sites. It is in those sites where the differences between the two species lie.