Thursday, January 27, 2011

Scientists Determine What Makes an Orangutan an Orangutan

Photo of a baby orangutan hanging on to its mother.For the first time, scientists have mapped the genome--the genetic code--of orangutans. This new tool may be used to support efforts to maintain the genetic diversity of captive and wild orangutans. The new map of the orangutan genome may also be used to help improve our understanding of the evolution of primates, including humans. ...

The name "orangutan" is derived from the Malay term, "man of the forest," a fitting moniker for one of our closest relatives.

There are two species of orangutans, defined primarily by their island of origin--either Sumatra or Borneo. The outlook for orangutan survival is currently dire because there are estimated to be only about 7,500 orangutans in Sumatra, where they are considered critically endangered, and only about 50,000 orangutans in Borneo, where they are considered endangered.

The endangerment status of orangutans is determined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

There are no other wild populations of orangutans other than those in Sumatra and Borneo. The decline of the Sumatran and Borneo populations of orangutans is caused by varied threats, such as illegal logging, the conversion of rain forests to farmland and palm oil plantations, hunting and diseases.

Using a mix of legacy and novel technologies, the research team mapped the genomes of a total of 11 orangutans, including representatives of both the Sumatran and Bornean species.

The map of the orangutan genome may support conservation efforts by helping zoos create breeding programs designed to maintain the genetic diversity of captive populations. (The greater the genetic diversity of a species, the more resilient it is against threats to its survival.) The genome map may also help conservationists sample the genetic diversity of wild populations so they can prioritize populations of wild orangutans for conservation efforts.

Evolutionary implications

After scientists map a species' genome, they compare it to the genetic maps of other species. As they do so, they search for key differences that involve duplications, deletions and inversions of genetic material. These differences may contribute to the unique features of particular species. They may also provide information about general evolutionary trends, such as the overall rate at which genomic evolution has occurred.

Before the orangutan's genome was mapped, the genetic codes of three other great primates--humans, chimpanzees and rhesus macaques--were mapped.

The genomes of the gorilla and bonobo will soon be mapped, as well.

Analyses of the orangutan genome reveal that this primate has many unique features. For example, comparisons of the structural variation of the genomes of orangutans, humans, chimpanzees and rhesus macaques indicate that during the last 15 million years or so of primate evolution, the orangutan genome has generally been more stable than those of the other primates, with fewer large-scale structural changes. ...

via - National Science Foundation (NSF) News - Scientists Determine What Makes an Orangutan an Orangutan - US National Science Foundation (NSF).

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