Print 93 comment(s) - last by drycrust3.. on Dec 7 at 2:24 AM

  (Source: Matt Groening/Fox)
Crucial gene controls higher brain growth

To the uninformed observer it may seem baffling how geneticists, biochemists, paleontologists, and other researchers can claim that two creatures that look as different as a man and a monkey could not only be "related" but have been produced by evolution over the last couple million years.

I. It's All in the Genes

But the key to understanding evolution is to understand genetics: our body is driven by protein enzymes, which catalyze critical processes inside the body.  Many proteins share common domains.  And the blueprints to all the proteins a creature makes are stored in a special highly-ordered storage construct called DNA.

While living organisms go to great lengths to preserve their genetic code without errors like swapped sections or deletions, occassionally during the process of making sperm and eggs such an error is made.  Most errors result in infertility or death of the offspring.  But occasionally just the right combination of protein domains has accidentally been clumped together, producing something that fundamentally transforms the organism.

Researchers have finally found a gene -- perhaps the gene -- which separates humans from the ancestors they share with apes.

Humans and apes, both members of the order Primates, share 96 percent of their genetic code.  Most of the remaining 4 percent is so-called "junk" DNA; stretches of mostly inactive code.

Rhesus macaque
Humans share 96 percent of their genetic code with primates, like this Rhesus macaque monkey.
[Image Source: Mark Snelson]

Of course, junk DNA is not useless geneticists and biochemists have recently discovered.  It has been shown to in many cases play a key role in regulation of other genes' expression and other "epigenetic" effects.

But researchers had yet to discover a truly active gene that humans have that apes lack -- until now.

II. miR-941 May Hold the Key to How Mankind is so Crafty

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland have discovered a gene called miR-941, which is only found in humans and is absent in their primate relatives.

The gene was absent not only in the gorilla and chimpanzee genomes, but also in the genomes of other non-primates, such as mice and rats.  The gene, absent in all the other critters except for man, is mainly active in the brain; particularly in areas of the brain associated with so-called "higher brain" functions.  

The gene was actively being transcribed in the regions of the brain responsiible for language learning and decision making. Researchers hypothesize that it may play a key role in abilities that are largely unique to humans, such as formulating, understanding, and preserving multiple complex communications codes (languages) and developing advanced tools (weapons, machinery).

Human brain activity
The newly discovered human-unique gene is active in areas of the brain associated with higher thinking processes. [Image Source: Neuroimages Tumblr]

Some other creatures -- gorillas, parrots, dolphins, and whales -- show different levels of sign language or spoken/sung language skills.  And chimpanzees, octupi, and other creatures have been shown to use basic implements, like sticks, as tools.  However, only humans are known to manifest these helpful survival skills in more complex manners.

Now, modern genetics may have cracked a key mystery of human evolution and explained why.

The research was published in the prestigious peer-review journal Nature Communications.

Source: Nature Communications

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RE: Jason Mick maaan??
By ihateapple on 11/24/2012 1:55:17 AM , Rating: 2
I think the biological equivalent would be death, i.e. the organism would be dead before they got a chance to pass their DNA on.

Nope. The biological equivalent would be not getting born at all.

And I think this is a lot like the video game "Prototype" in which there is a virus called the Blacklight Virus. The Blacklight Virus activates the junk DNA, resulting in superhuman abilities.

RE: Jason Mick maaan??
By melgross on 11/24/2012 10:49:00 AM , Rating: 2
Not necessarily. My major was evolutionary biology. I can say that there are so many possible outcomes that it can't be stated in an online article such as this one. But while it's possible that the fetus may not be formed at all, or could die in the womb, it's just as likely that it will die upon birth. It just depends on the mutation.

Living creatures are far more adaptable than software or machines, where one bad part, or line of code can prevent it from working.

What concerns me though, it that this is getting closer to the time when a gene, plus a few other small changes could transform a lower animal into a somewhat intelligent being. What would happen if this were inserted into a chimp fetus? Major ethical concerns there, and while the law over most of the planet disallows experiments of this type, we know that at some point, somewhere, someone will attempt it.

And if it survives, what is it? And what rights would it have?

RE: Jason Mick maaan??
By drycrust3 on 11/24/2012 4:08:58 PM , Rating: 1
plus a few other small changes could transform a lower animal into a somewhat intelligent being.

From personal observation, I'm of the opinion that most animals have a good degree of intelligence, probably very close to that of humans.
I think one of the big failings of Darwin's ideas was to regard every action an animal makes as somehow purely mechanical. As I see it, by trying to plant in "intelligence genes" into already intelligent animals the scientists won't get the result they want because they couldn't see the intelligence of that animal to start with.

RE: Jason Mick maaan??
By JediJeb on 11/26/2012 2:32:25 PM , Rating: 2
I have seen cows learn to use their tongue to turn on a water faucet without ever being trained to do so, they simply observed and learned. That in itself would imply that a cow in intelligent to some extent. Also it was not only one cow in the group that learned that, it was several, and was very annoying because it ran up the water bill quite a bit with the water running all night at times.

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