UMass Biologists Spearhead Largest Primate Brain Gene Study

AMHERST, Mass. – An interdisciplinary team of researchers led by biologists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has recently published the results of a first-of-its-kind study investigating the relationship between genetics and brain development in 18 species. -primate. The team collected brain tissue samples from zoos whose animals had died naturally, as well as from people who had donated their bodies to science, and sequenced the RNA transcripts from the samples by each to produce a map of each of the 17,000 genes. in each primate’s brain. The team compared each gene’s RNA transcriptomes to better understand the links between genomics and evolution and to provide insight into aspects of brain function as well as neurodegenerative disease. .

“We’re studying the evolution of the primate brain,” says Katie Rickelton, lead author of the paper, published in eLife, and a doctoral candidate in molecular and cellular biology at UMass Amherst. -primates, especially humans, are characterized by having very large brains relative to their body size-however, humans, chimpanzees and lemurs are all very different, despite do they have the same DNA sequence. they are produced at higher or lower levels.”

Other researchers have sequenced RNA in the brains of primates, but on a much smaller scale. “If we’re going to figure out what makes humans unique among primates, we’re going to have to study a lot of primate species,” says senior author Courtney Babbitt, an assistant professor of biology at UMass Amherst. , and no one has ever looked at it. in such a large example before.”

To conduct their research, Rickelton, Babbitt and their colleagues worked with the National Center for Child Health and Human Development and the Tissue Bank for Developmental Disorders at the University of Maryland. , the National Chimpanzee Brain Resource, and about a dozen other organizations. is highly regarded for their discovery of brain cells. The team obtained samples from four different brain regions – including the prefrontal cortex, primary visual cortex, hippocampus and cerebellum – in each of the 18 species being investigated, and used the genomics foundation at UMass Amherst’s Center for Applied Life Sciences to conduct RNA sequencing. .

UMass Biologists Spearhead Largest Primate Brain Gene Study

RNA is the intermediate step between DNA—the blueprint for every species—and the proteins that make up a single organism. The number and types of proteins that can be produced are determined by the amount of RNA, which has been mapped in the transcriptomes that Rickelton, Babbitt and their colleagues have produced. And it’s a big job.

“We sequenced each of the 17,000 genes in each of the four regions across 18 species,” says Babbitt. “And we were able to they are simulated in very high resolution. “This is the best set of transcriptomes we have for the brains of these 18 species.”

The team was looking for differences in many brain functions related to cognition and metabolism, because the large and complex brain that we humans share with our primate relatives requires a lot of energy. They found surprising variation across species, from humans to pygmy slow loris.

For example, humans and chimpanzees are strikingly different from 16 other species, even though humans and chimpanzees evolved relatively recently from other great apes, leaving little time for evolution. that nature chooses itself. Although there are differences in the four parts of the brain that the group did, most of the differences seem to be largely explained by evolution. The exception, Rickelton points out, is the cerebellum. “Evolutionarily it’s the oldest part of the brain, and so it’s had a lot of time to evolve in different ways for each species,” says Rickelton.

Ultimately, the team’s findings point to specific genes for further study that may help explain the evolution of the primate brain. These genes can help better understand aspects of brain activity around each of the four regions, as well as provide insight into various neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s .

“It’s one of the great paradoxes of evolution: humans and chimps have the same genetic makeup, yet we’re so different,” says Babbitt. “To find out what makes us human, we’re going to have to look at the genes of many of our evolutionary cousins, and that’s what we’ve set out to do with the study this one.”

This research was supported by the US National Science Foundation, the Wenner Gren Foundation, the James S. McDonnell Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.

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