Scientists conclude that since 6 million years ago, chimpanzee genes have evolved more than human genes:
The results, detailed online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, contradict the conventional wisdom that humans are the result of a high degree of genetic selection, evidenced by our relatively large brains, cognitive abilities and bi-pedalism.
Jianzhi Zhang of the University of Michigan and his colleagues analyzed strings of DNA from nearly 14,000 protein-coding genes shared by chimps and humans. They looked for differences gene by gene and whether they caused changes in the generated proteins.
Genes act as instructions that organisms use to make proteins and thus are integral to carrying out biological functions, such as transporting oxygen to the body’s cells. Different versions of the same gene are called alleles.
Changes in DNA that affect the making of proteins are considered functional changes, while “silent” changes do not affect the proteins. “If we see an excess of functional changes (compared to silent changes) the inference is these functional changes occurred because they were positively selected, because they were useful in some way to the organism,” said study team member Margaret Bakewell, also of UM.
Bakewell, Zhang and a colleague found that substantially more genes in chimps evolved in ways that were beneficial than was the case with human genes.
The scientists believe the reason for this difference is that over the long term humans have had a smaller effective population:
“Although there are now many more humans than chimps, in the past, human populations were much smaller, and may have been fragmented into even smaller groups,”