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Old March 5th, 2007, 12:40 PM   #1
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The Ape of Things to Come

The extinction of chimps may be our own undoing, says Jonathan Heddle

Jonathan Heddle


Thursday November 29, 2001

"Chimpanzees will soon be extinct. If the present rate of hunting and habitat destruction continues, then within 20 years, there will be no chimpanzees living in the wild. But this is more than an environmental or moral tragedy. Chimpanzee extinction may also have profound implications for the survival of their distant relative - human beings.

In 1975 the biologists Marie-Claire King and Allan Wilson discovered that the human and chimpanzee genomes match by over 98%. Compare this to the mouse, used as a model for human disease in lab tests, which shares only 60% of its DNA with us. In fact, chimpanzees are far more similar to humans than they are to any other species of monkey. As well as resembling us genetically, chimpanzees are highly intelligent and able to use tools, as first recorded by Jane Goodall in 1968 when she spotted a wild chimpanzee using a twig to extract termites from a mound. These facts alone should be enough to make protection of chimps an urgent priority. But there is another, more selfish reason to preserve the chimp.

The chimpanzees' trump card comes in the field of medical research. Chimpanzees are so similar to humans that veterinarians often refer to human medical textbooks when treating them. Yet chimpanzees do show differences in several key areas. In particular, chimps are much more resistant than humans to a number of major diseases. It is this ability that is so interesting.

For example, chimps seem to show a much higher resistance than humans to HIV, the virus that causes Aids. Indeed, their use as experimental animals in Aids research has declined because they are so resistant.

The reason for this resilience is that while HIV is new to humans, chimps have had their own variety -simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) - for many thousands of years. Over a long period of time, chimpanzees have been able to evolve resistance to SIV. This resistance is encoded in their DNA.

Another area of interest is cancer. While it is one of the biggest killers in the western world, chimps suffer very little from the most common human cancers. This may be simply due to a healthier lifestyle and diet, but many scientists suspect that genes play a significant role.

By sequencing the chimp genome and pinpointing the places where the chimpanzee DNA sequence differs from that of humans, scientists hope to be able to discover which parts of the genetic code give chimps their increased resistance to some diseases. This, they hope, will allow them to develop new and more effective treatments for the human forms of these diseases. Such treatments could include the production of new drugs or even the alteration of the human genetic sequence. The recently completed human genome sequencing project has shown that such an endeavour is now well within our reach.

The chimp genome sequencing effort is being led by Dr Yoshiyuki Sakaki at the Riken genomic sciences centre in Yokohama, Japan. "We expect we will find some key genes or genotypes that makes chimps resistant to diseases such as Aids and malaria," he says."

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