Putting Primates in Sequence

Genomics Project Looks at Biology and Evolution
Share Share This
Dec 15, 2008

A new Primate Genomics Initiative in the department of evolutionary anthropology is making Duke a hotbed of comparative genetics in primates. The initiative will be a concerted effort to connect genotype -- the content of the genes -- with phenotype -- the way the animal actually operates.

Julie Horvath produced this cladogram, or family tree, of the primates for a 2008 research paper that used gene sequences to put the lemur family tree in order for the first time. “Without the Aye-Aye, we'd have a completely different idea about where lemurs came from,” said Lemur Center Director Anne Yoder.

How did our brains become so much larger than other primates? Why do we eat so differently? Where do we get our penchant for dominance or risk-taking? These questions and others are being explored from a variety of angles by researchers from the Duke Lemur Center, the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy (IGSP) and the newly re-energized Department of Evolutionary Anthropology. With a startup grant of $500,000 from Dean of Natural Sciences Al Crumbliss, and support from the IGSP, the Initiative will be training graduate students how to incorporate new genetic and genomic methods into their research, says research director Julie Horvath.

Bits and pieces of the data are already in place. Researchers around the world have completed whole-genome DNA sequencing for humans, rhesus macaques, chimpanzees, orangutans and marmosets. Genome sequences for the bonobo, gorilla, baboon, galago and a mouse lemur species will likely be completed within a year, Horvath says. "I have people approaching me all the time and saying 'Now what do we do with all this?'"

"People are understanding that it's time to look at larger populations and do things more collaboratively," she says.

Three collaborative research projects have been launched so far to get the initiative started:

Susan Alberts, the Jack H. Neely Associate Professor in the Department of Biology, is interested in adding genetic information to her years of data on the behavior and social structure of baboons in East Africa.

Greg Wray, professor of biology and director of the IGSP's Center for Evolutionary Genomics, is interested in how genes may have made the human diet so different from that of other primates.

And Michael Platt, associate professor of neurobiology, is going to be looking for genetic bases of risk-taking behavior in a troop of Puerto Rican macaques.

Some of the resources needed to tackle these questions are already present at Duke. "The great thing about being in evolutionary anthropology is that everyone here has a great foundation in anatomical and behavioral studies," Horvath says.

"Now we're going to add genetics and genomics," she says. "In order to answer some of these questions, we will build up the infrastructure and intellectual resources that make Duke such a unique institution."


(919) 681-8054