A Wayne State University School of Medicine researcher is one step closer to understanding the genetic basis that enable bonobos, one of humankind’s sibling species, to learn language, play music and use rudimentary tools.
Derek Wildman, Ph.D., led a team that isolated the DNA and sequenced the genome, or whole inherited genetic make-up, of Kanzi, a bonobo based at the Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa. The sequencing, only the second of its kind, was performed at both WSU and an off-site private company.
Dr. Wildman is associate professor of Molecular Medicine and Genetics, and of Obstetrics and Gynecology. He is the director of the Molecular Evolution Group at WSU’s Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics.
Kanzi, 32, was raised from birth in a family of five humans and eight bonobos, and was trained to use and understand simple spoken English to communicate. He also plays music, makes fire, cooks simple meals, and makes and uses flint knives. The goal of sequencing Kanzi’s genome is to understand the unique abilities of Kanzi and the other bonobos living at the sanctuary.
“We can compare Kanzi’s genome to the genomes of humans, and other primates in order to see what is unique about Kanzi from a genetic perspective,” Dr. Wildman said. “We also can see what Kanzi shares with other primates. Because we have also sequenced his transcriptome we can build gene models that are more accurate, and we can see which genes are expressed in his blood, and in the placenta of Kanzi’s son, Teco. This is a very important first step in untangling nature from nurture in the cognitive development of bonobos.”
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