Scientists map DNA of research monkeys

Scientists who have unravelled the DNA of the rhesus macaque say the breaktrhough will help researchers be sure when the monkeys are a good stand-in for humans for medical testing.

Scientists have unravelled the DNA of another of our primate relatives, this time a monkey named the rhesus macaque — and the work has far more immediate impact than just to study evolution.

These fuzzy animals are key to testing the safety of many medicines, and understanding such diseases as AIDS, and the new research will help scientists finally be sure when they're a good stand-in for humans.

"The thing we're all fascinated with is what makes us different from these animals who are so close to us," said Dr. Richard Gibbs of the Baylor College of Medicine, who led a team of more than 170 scientists who collaborated on the project.

In Friday's edition of the journal Science, the researchers report deciphering the macaque's DNA and comparing it to the genetic blueprints of humans and chimpanzees, our closest living relatives.

Among the most intriguing discoveries so far: a list of diseases where the same genetic mutation that makes people ill seems normal for the macaques.

"That is really quite a stunner," said Dr. Francis Collins, genetics chief at the National Institutes of Health, which funded the research. "It gives you a glimmer of how subtle changes in DNA cause big trouble."

More animal genomes being mapped

The mapping of the human genome in 2001 sparked an explosion of work to similarly decipher the DNA of other animals so scientists could compare species in the effort to understand the functions of various genes.

The rhesus macaque is the third primate genome to be completed, work that promises to greatly enhance understanding of primate evolution, perhaps even to help explain what makes us human.

Not surprisingly, the DNA of humans, chimps and macaquesis highly similar. Humans and chimps have evolved separately since splitting from a common ancestor aboutsix million years ago, but still have almost 99 per cent of their gene sequences in common.

Macaques branched off from the ape family tree far earlier, about 25 million years ago— yet still share about 93 per cent of their DNA with humans, the new work shows.

Here's the key: six million years isn't long in evolutionary history. So if a particular gene is different in the human and the chimp, it's impossible to know which version came first. Add these more ancient Old World monkeys into the mix, however, and it may be possible to tease out genetic changes that were important for key traits of modern humans, such as higher brain power and walking upright.

"That does point us, in a much more powerful way, to answering the question, 'What does humanness mean?' at the DNA level," said Collins, director of NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute.

The work raises some important biomedical questions because rhesus macaques are ubiquitous in medical research. Most vaccines and many drugs are tested in the monkeys before ever reaching people,and they're used as models of many human diseases, most notably the AIDS virus. The research will help determine things such as the ways that monkeys may react differently to humans when given a test drug.

Gibbs said the work has importance for the animals, too— because knowing their genetic makeup should cut the number of monkeys needed in many biomedical experiments. "It's really about experimenting less and being able to learn more."