Evolution in the News - January 2003
by Do-While Jones

Monkey Business

Was the decision to sequence the chimpanzee gene next "a choice for philosophy and evolution"?

What is behind the decision to sequence the chimpanzee gene before sequencing the rhesus monkey gene?

It was a shocking disappointment to some, and a pleasant surprise to others. On 22 May, [2002,] when the US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) announced its list of top-priority organisms for genome sequencing, the chimpanzee had made the cut. The rhesus macaque, the most widely used primate in biomedical research, had not.

Arguments about the merits of the decision are still rumbling on. But now the chimp has received the nod, what scientific advances can we hope for? The common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) is our closest relative. Its genome sequence is about 98.8% identical to our own, and we shared a common ancestor some six million years ago. So one major hope is that the differences between the sequences will reveal the genetic basis for our mental and linguistic capacities, and explain why we are susceptible to some diseases that do not afflict the great apes.

Despite these grand goals, some advocates of chimp sequencing admit that they were surprised by the NHGRI's decision. Given that the rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) is an important experimental model in fields from cognitive neuroscience to HIV vaccine research, they had expected it to edge the chimp out of the list of top sequencing priorities--but they are delighted with the result. "It was a choice for philosophy and evolution, against current trends towards biomedical application," says Svante Pääbo, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who wrote a 'white paper' urging the NHGRI to support chimp sequencing. 1

On the surface, it appears that government bureaucrats think it is more important to sequence the chimp genome in the hopes of finding evidence of evolution than it is to sequence the rhesus monkey in the hopes of finding a cure for AIDS. In this case, surface appearances may be deceiving.

There are people who would like to have DNA evidence that man evolved from apes. These people might try to use whatever influence they have (however small) to get the government to sequence the chimp genome and publish it freely.

Unfortunately, there are also many people who have AIDS, who would pay any price for medicine that would increase the quality or length of their lives. Knowing this, there are undoubtedly people working in the private sector who are trying to sequence the rhesus monkey genome in order to find a cure for AIDS. They might be doing this because they are compassionate people who can’t bear to see AIDS patients suffer. They might be doing this because they want the fame and honor that comes from finding a cure for this terrible disease. They might be doing this because they realize they can sell medicine that uses their proprietary research at a handsome profit. Regardless of their motives, these people might try to use whatever influence they have (which could be considerable) to prevent a public agency from sequencing the rhesus genome and making it freely available to their competitors. These people, too, would like public research to focus on the chimpanzee rather than the rhesus monkey.

Just because the government doesn’t pay to sequence the rhesus monkey genome, it doesn’t mean that the work won’t be done. It is inconceivable that the rhesus genome won’t be sequenced by privately-funded AIDS research. There is a good chance that the rhesus genome might even be sequenced before the chimp genome because privately-funded researchers won’t have to waste time and money producing burdensome paperwork to prove they used competitive procurement, and gave the work to an ethnically diverse workforce, etc..

If you had the responsibility for deciding how to spend public money, would you spend it on the rhesus genome (knowing that someone in the private sector will probably finish the job first without you having to spend a penny)? Or, would you spend the money on the chimpanzee genome--a popular project that nobody else will spend the money to work on it? The smart choice is to decide in favor of the chimpanzee. The fact that there are wealthy, powerful people who are likely to be very grateful that you picked the chimpanzee, and might express their gratitude in some very tangible way, would not affect your decision at all.

When the chimp genome is sequenced and compared to the human genome, they certainly will find evidence of evolution for two reasons.

First, that’s the whole point of sequencing the genome. If it doesn’t find evidence of evolution, the money will have been wasted. Publicly-funded research always comes to the intended conclusion.

Second, if there is a high degree of similarity between the human genome and the chimp genome, that will be interpreted as evidence of evolution from a common ancestor. But, since evolution means “change” by definition, whatever differences are discovered will be evidence of evolution.

Since genetic similarity is evidence of evolution, and genetic difference is evidence of evolution, how could anyone not find evidence of evolution? The conclusion will be the same regardless of the findings.

But from what we have already read about DNA analysis of “related” species, we expect that there will be some surprises that will be very difficult for evolutionists to explain. Those evolutionary paradoxes probably won’t get much attention in the popular press, but you can be sure that we will be watching the technical literature closely, and will keep you informed.

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Footnotes:

1 Cyranoski, Nature, Vol. 418, 29 August 2002, “Almost Human” page 910 (Ev)