What is the closest living relative we have (evolutionary speaking)? That’s right, chimpanzees!! Our evolutionary paths separated us about five to six million years ago leading to the chimpanzee of today, and us humans of the 21st century, but we still have much in common. Like humans, Chimpanzees use body language to communicate. They often kiss, hug, pat each other on the back, hold hands and shake their fists. They even laugh when they get tickled. At the same time, a lot has also changed. Not only do we stand on two legs and are relatively hairless, but we also have brains that function differently.
Recent research from Lund University has found the answer to what in our DNA makes our brains different. Created by Shinya Yamanaka, the study used a revolutionary stem cell technique. Yamanaka discovered that if reprogrammed specialized cells can be developed into all types of body tissue. It was even recognized by the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The researchers used stem cells grown in a lab. Their partners in Germany, the US, and Japan reprogrammed the skin cells. Then Johan Jakobsson, professor of neuroscience at Lund University, and his partners examined the stem cells that they had developed into brain cells. Using the stem cells, the researchers specifically grew brain cells from humans and chimpanzees and compared the two cell types. The researchers then found that humans and chimpanzees use a part of their DNA in different ways. This appears to play a significant role in the development of our brains.
What the researchers learned was different in part of our DNA they and I found so unexpected. Unlike previous research in the part of the DNA where the protein-producing genes are — about roughly two percent of our entire DNA, the difference that was found indicated that the differences between chimpanzees and humans appear to lie outside the protein-coding genes. The research found that it is actually located a so-called structural variant of DNA in what has been labeled as “junk DNA,” a long repetitive DNA string that has long been deemed to have no function. This was thought to have no function.
This data suggests that the basis for the human brain’s evolution is a lot more complex than previously throughout genetic mechanisms, as it was supposed that the answer was in that 2 percent of the genetic DNA. These results indicate that the overlooked 98 percent is what has been significant for the brain’s development is instead perhaps hidden in, which appears to be important.
Researchers hope to answer that question one day. But there is a long way to go before they reach that point. The question that now remains is instead of carrying out further research on the two percent of coded DNA should they delve deeper into all 100 percent. Even though exploring the missed ninety-eight percent is a considerably more complicated task for research.
One question that also definitely still remains is why did the researchers want to investigate the difference between humans and chimpanzees in the first place?
Well, Johan Jakobsson believes that in the future the new findings will prove his belief that the brain is the key to understanding what it is that makes humans human. How did it come about that humans can use their brains in such a way that they can build societies, educate their children and develop advanced technology? It is fascinating!” (Lund University). He hopes that this research will contribute to answers about things like genetically-based questions about psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia. As for me, I wonder if this continued research will tell us anything about how Chimpanzees will evolve.