The orangutan genome has been sequenced and published in today’s Nature. The paper, “Comparative and demographic analysis of orang-utan genomes,” is open access for you to read for yourself. I’ll be highlighting some of the high points in this post. Devin Locke, a structural geneticist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, headed the sequencing of six Sumatran and five Bornean orangutans. As you may know Pongo abelii, or the Sumatran orangutan, is a separate species from Bornean orangutans — Pongo pygmaeus.
One remarkable finding of the study is the estimated divergence between the Sumatran and Bornean species. The team calculated the two species diverged 400,000 years ago. We know that land bridge between Indonesia’s Sumatra and Borneo split at least 21,000 years ago but until now we’ve never known at what time the two speciated.
Compared to the two other great apes whose genomes have been sequenced, humans and chimps, the orangutan genome has changed much less. We’re still waiting on the gorilla genome to be finished. Oangutans originated some 12 million to 16 million years ago. Theoretically, orangutans have had more time to accumulate genetic variation compared to humans and chimpanzees, which split into their own lineages 5 million to 6 million years ago. One would expect at least twice as much variation in the orangutan genome. However, in the study, a comparison of the three genomes shows that humans and chimpanzees have lost or gained new genes at twice the rate of orangutans.
The paper explains that orangutan genomes have much fewer active retrotransposons than human and chimp genomes. Retrotransposons, or Alu elements, are essentially jumping genes, that replicate, and amplify then insert into different parts of the genome. The initial 2001 draft of the human genome reported that around 42% of the human genome is made up of retrotransposons. The authors of the orangutan paper illustrate that the human genome has ~5,000 Alu elements, whereas the orangutan genome has 250. This is significantly different. The authors write,
“Reduced Alu retroposition potentially limited the effect of a wide variety of repeat-driven mutational mechanisms in the orang-utan lineage that played a major role in restructuring other primate genomes.”
Personally, and this is my thinking here nothing the authors say — a common source of many human retrotransposons are to prehistoric viruses that integrated into our ancestral DNA. Viruses are communicable. Orangutans are the most solitary Great apes. I suspect they would have much less exposure to viruses because of their social structure, and thus much less chance of insertion of retrotransposon. Again, this is a hypothesis of mine, and I could be very wrong to think this.
Comparison of Orangutan to Great Ape Alu sequences
One last finding, I want to bring up was published in another paper released by the same team, but in the journal Genome Research. In the paper, “Incomplete lineage sorting patterns among human, chimpanzee and orangutan suggest recent orangutan speciation and widespread selection,” coauthors of the previous study write that there are many similarities to the human and orangutan genome, much more similar than human to chimp, in fact. They suspect that could be because humans split from a common ancestor with chimps, of which both species had the same ancestral orangutan DNA. What remains curious is that humans and chimpanzees have evolved separately for millions of years. In the process, chimps for mysterious reasons lost some orangutan DNA that humans retained.
As often in sciences, many more questions arise from studies like these but I am excited that the age of genomics is shedding more light on our fellow primates!
Locke, D., Hillier, L., Warren, W., Worley, K., Nazareth, L., Muzny, D., Yang, S., Wang, Z., Chinwalla, A., Minx, P., Mitreva, M., Cook, L., Delehaunty, K., Fronick, C., Schmidt, H., Fulton, L., Fulton, R., Nelson, J., Magrini, V., Pohl, C., Graves, T., Markovic, C., Cree, A., Dinh, H., Hume, J., Kovar, C., Fowler, G., Lunter, G., Meader, S., Heger, A., Ponting, C., Marques-Bonet, T., Alkan, C., Chen, L., Cheng, Z., Kidd, J., Eichler, E., White, S., Searle, S., Vilella, A., Chen, Y., Flicek, P., Ma, J., Raney, B., Suh, B., Burhans, R., Herrero, J., Haussler, D., Faria, R., Fernando, O., Darré, F., Farré, D., Gazave, E., Oliva, M., Navarro, A., Roberto, R., Capozzi, O., Archidiacono, N., Valle, G., Purgato, S., Rocchi, M., Konkel, M., Walker, J., Ullmer, B., Batzer, M., Smit, A., Hubley, R., Casola, C., Schrider, D., Hahn, M., Quesada, V., Puente, X., Ordoñez, G., López-Otín, C., Vinar, T., Brejova, B., Ratan, A., Harris, R., Miller, W., Kosiol, C., Lawson, H., Taliwal, V., Martins, A., Siepel, A., RoyChoudhury, A., Ma, X., Degenhardt, J., Bustamante, C., Gutenkunst, R., Mailund, T., Dutheil, J., Hobolth, A., Schierup, M., Ryder, O., Yoshinaga, Y., de Jong, P., Weinstock, G., Rogers, J., Mardis, E., Gibbs, R., & Wilson, R. (2011). Comparative and demographic analysis of orang-utan genomes Nature, 469 (7331), 529-533 DOI: 10.1038/nature09687
Hobolth, A., Dutheil, J., Hawks, J., Schierup, M., & Mailund, T. (2011). Incomplete lineage sorting patterns among human, chimpanzee and orangutan suggest recent orangutan speciation and widespread selection Genome Research DOI: 10.1101/gr.114751.110