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Scientists Unravel 'Hippie Chimp' Genome

Scientist Kay Prufer and his colleagues studied this female bonobo called Ulindi, who lives in the Leipzig Zoo in Germany, to help map the bonobo genome. (© MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology)

Bonobos share almost 99 percent of human DNA

In a development which could lead to a better understanding of human evolution, scientists have unlocked the genetic map of the bonobo, a large and mild-mannered species of African ape.

Chimpanzees and bonobos share almost 99 percent of human DNA.

The scientists who recently mapped the bonobo genome found that, in three percent of that shared genetic material, humans are more closely related to both bonobos and chimpanzees than the two apes are to each other.

“Bonobos and chimpanzees are both our closest ancestor and living relatives and that is something that you can clearly see in the genome," says Kay Prufer, with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who was one of the researchers. "I think the most interesting thing that I saw in the genome is this 1.5 percent of the genome where bonobos are closer to us, and the 1.5 percent of the genome where chimpanzees are closer to us."
Bonobos and chimpanzees are both the closest ancestors and living relatives of humans.(Michael Seres)
Bonobos and chimpanzees are both the closest ancestors and living relatives of humans.(Michael Seres)

Prufer notes the genetic differences between the bonobo and chimpanzees may be the result of the apes’ distinct habitats. In the wild, bonobos can only be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The formation of the Congo river, which is about two million years ago, probably divided up the ancestor in two different parts," Prufer says, "the one below the Congo river, which are the bonobos, and the chimpanzees, which live north of the Congo river; and this geological event essentially divided up this ancestor and formed these two different species.”

Richard Ruggiero, chief of the Asia & Africa branch at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, believes the mapping of the bonobo genome is an important development.

“It’s always interesting to have genetic proof of what people see in the field," Ruggiero says. "It’s exciting to get this information that it [the bonobo] shares its genetic proximity to people and, of course, to chimpanzees, and the differences that we see with how chimpanzees have adapted to their environment and how bonobos have adapted to theirs. As the author points out, they were thought to be represented by a common ancestor say a million years ago, and how the selective pressures have genetically changed these animals in ways that are now becoming increasingly visible.”

Ruggiero believes these scientific findings could be of great help to the bonobo, the world’s most endangered primate.

“In the near term, it will raise interest, and that’s very important because awareness is the first step in conservation," he says. "And developing the will to do something about it is the second step in conservation. And the third step is understanding what to do about it in order to act on that greater will and awareness.”

Ruggiero says the new research makes him feel more optimistic about the future of the bonobos.

“I think this paper brings some of the intuitions we’ve had, full circle and puts numbers and more concrete scientific information on something that is quite obvious for those of us who have been closer to them and so this paper is a wonderful step forward not only in science but in that important first step of awareness about the plight of this species and what we as humans need to do to ensure that our own activities don’t wipe them out.”

Working with local communities, several conservation groups have set up protected areas in the Congo for the bonobos. And a large bonobo sanctuary just outside of Kinshasa is helping to re-introduce orphaned bonobos back into the wild.

The new analysis of the bonobo genome is published in this week’s issue of the science journal Nature.