Human Y chromosomes are less chimp, more gorilla

3 Mar 201619 Shares

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A new method of DNA sequencing has shown that the male-specific Y chromosome in humans has more in common with gorillas than chimpanzees in many ways.

Using two different sequencing technologies – one which produces massive amounts of very short reads, the other that binds them together into long reads – Penn State researchers claim to have developed a “new, less expensive, and faster method” of studying the Y chromosome in all species.

Using this approach, the authors of a new paper in Genome Research have claimed that it could aid studies into male-specific mutations in genes, fertility disorders, and even conservation plans.

More eye-catching, though, is the realisation that gorillas might be closer relations to us than we thought.

“Surprisingly, we found that in many ways the gorilla Y chromosome is more similar to the human Y chromosome than either is to the chimpanzee Y chromosome,” said Penn State’s Kateryna Makova, co-author of the paper.

Jim (on the right), whose Y chromosome was sequenced, together with Dolly, his mother, and Binti, his sister, via San Diego Zoo Global

Jim (on the right), whose Y chromosome was sequenced, together with Dolly, his mother, and Binti, his sister, via San Diego Zoo Global

Time to make a change

Chimpanzees are still our closest relative, which this paper does not dispute, however, Makova found that the chimpanzee Y chromosome appears to have undergone more changes in the number of genes “and contains a different amount of repetitive elements compared to the human or gorilla”.

The difficulties in sequencing the Y chromosome are numerous, including the fact that Y are present in only one copy, and make up just a fraction of the total genetic material found in a cell of a male.

Also, Y are packed full of repetitive sequences, which Makova called “a jigsaw puzzle”.

“Our method will open the door for studying the Y chromosome for more labs, more species, and more individuals within those species.”

To demonstrate how their research could be put to work, the researchers designed genetic markers in the gorilla Y chromosome that allowed them to differentiate the genetic relatedness among male gorillas, which could help with conservation efforts.

Main gorilla image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt is senior communications and context executive at NDRC. He previously worked as a journalist with Silicon Republic.

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