Quirks and Quarks

Do great apes have the same blood groups as humans?

A, B, O and AB. Our closest relatives have the same blood groups as we do, with subtle differences

Our closest relatives have the same blood groups as we do, with subtle differences

A chimp in deep thought, perhaps about its blood type, which is most commonly A (Richard Quinn)

This week's question comes from Lynn Martin in Victoria, British Columbia. She asks:

As primates are so close genetically to humans, do we have the same blood types?

Richard Quinn, a veterinarian near London, Ontario and founding director of the Canadian charity Docs4GreatApes says that the two most commonly described blood group systems in people - ABO and RH - are also recognized in most non-human primates. The ABO gene would have existed in a common primate ancestor that lived over 20 million years ago.

Blood group A is thought to be the oldest blood group in primates, but naturally occurring genetic changes in DNA over time have made it different from what we see today.

Orangutans have all four blood groups, A, B, AB and O (Richard Quinn)

Distinguishing just how close the blood groups of primates are to humans depends on how closely you look. For example, testing blood samples using human monoclonal antibodies, you would find that bonobos have exclusively type A blood; chimpanzees are predominantly A with smaller number having type O; Orangutans from Borneo have all four blood types, A, B, AB and O. 

However, gorillas do not have A, B or AB, so by default they were thought to be type O. But by looking at the molecular level, the gene segments of gorillas reveal completely different blood groups not related to the ABO system. 

Even though bonobos, chimps and orangutans are reasonably close to human blood types, there have been enough subtle changes over time that it would not be safe to transfuse type A human blood to a chimpanzee of the same blood type, or from chimp to human.

The blood group of the gorilla is not related to the ABO system like other primates (Richard Quinn)