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Gene regulation differences between humans and chimpanzees more complex than thought

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Posted October 18, 2013

Changes in gene regulation have been used to study the evolutionary chasm that exists between humans and chimpanzees despite their largely identical DNA. However, scientists from the University of Chicago have discovered that mRNA expression levels, long considered a barometer for differences in gene regulation, often do not reflect differences in protein expression—and, therefore, biological function—between humans and chimpanzees. The work was published Oct. 17 in Science.

“We thought that we knew how to identify patterns of mRNA expression level differences between humans and chimpanzees that would be good candidates to be of functional importance,” said Yoav Gilad, PhD, Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago. “Now we see that even such mRNA patterns are not translated to the protein level. Which means that it is unlikely that they can affect a functional phenotypic difference.”

For genes to be expressed, DNA must be transcribed into messenger RNA (mRNA), which then code for proteins, the biological building blocks and engines that drive cellular function. Although humans and chimpanzees share highly similar genomes, previous studies have shown that the species evolved major differences in mRNA expression levels. Many of these differences were thought to indicate areas of evolutionary divergence, thus pointing to genes important for human-specific traits.

To test this, Gilad, Jonathan Pritchard, PhD, currently at Stanford University, and their team, spearheaded by postdoctoral fellow Zia Khan, PhD, used high-resolution mass spectrometry to compare the expression levels of thousands of proteins with corresponding mRNA expression data in human and chimpanzee cell lines.

Read more at: Phys.org

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