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  • Analyzing RNA Transcripts to Understand Primate Brain Complexity and Evolution

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    Katie Rickelton preparing to sequence primate RNA at the UMass IALS Genomics Core. (Image Credit:UMass Amherst​)​




    Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, along with an interdisciplinary team, have conducted an extensive study exploring the connections between gene expression and the evolutionary development of the brain across 18 primate species. The research focused on analyzing brain tissue samples from a variety of primates, including humans, which were sourced ethically from zoos and scientific donations.

    Methodological Rigor in Primate Brain Study
    The team embarked on the meticulous task of sequencing RNA transcripts from these samples, encompassing all 17,000 genes expressed in the primate brain. This comprehensive approach allowed the researchers to compare the RNA transcriptomes of each species, aiming to resolve the genetic factors of brain evolution and provide insights into brain functionality and the potential roots of neurodegenerative diseases.

    Katie Rickelton, the lead author and a doctoral candidate in molecular and cellular biology at UMass Amherst, highlighted the study's focus on understanding the disparities in brain size relative to body size among primates. “Primates, and especially humans, are defined by having very large brains compared to their body size—and yet, humans, chimpanzees, and lemurs are all very different, despite having similar DNA sequences,” stated Rickelton. “We think that difference can be partly explained by which genes are expressed at higher or lower levels.”

    A Comparative Approach to Understanding Brain Evolution
    The research is notable for its comprehensive sample size and the resolution of its data. "We sequenced every single one of the 17,000 genes expressed in each of the four regions across the 18 species," stated Courtney Babbitt, senior author and associate professor of biology at UMass Amherst. The team's collaboration with multiple institutions, including the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development Brain and Tissue Bank for Developmental Disorders, and the National Chimpanzee Brain Resource, ensured the ethical procurement of high-quality brain tissue samples from diverse primate species.

    The study's extensive dataset spans four critical brain regions: the prefrontal cortex, primary visual cortex, hippocampus, and cerebellum. This broad approach facilitated a detailed comparison of gene expression patterns, offering new perspectives on the evolutionary trajectories of primate brains.

    Findings and Implications
    The researchers observed significant variations in gene expression across the primate species studied, with humans and chimpanzees displaying notably divergent patterns compared to other primates. This variation suggests rapid evolutionary changes since the divergence of humans and chimps from their common ancestors. Interestingly, the cerebellum—an evolutionarily ancient brain region—showed distinct evolutionary adaptations across species, underscoring its potential significance in primate brain evolution.

    In summarizing the study's implications, Babbitt reflected on the evolutionary puzzle presented by the close genetic relationship yet significant differences between humans and chimpanzees. "To figure out what makes us human, we're going to have to look at the genetic expression of a wide range of our evolutionary cousins," Babbitt emphasized, pointing to the study's foundational role in exploring these complex questions.

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