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Bonobo genome mapped

By Kyra Hall

Scientists have finally finished mapping the last great ape genome. Humans, gorillas and chimps were all sequenced before the humble Bonobo, but unraveling their genome has provided some valuable insights into human nature. Bonobos are the little-known, peace-loving relative of the chimpanzee. They live only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the opposite side of the river from chimps. Physically smaller, the bonobos are all around less aggressive and more generous than their chimp counterparts. They are equally as related to us as chimps, sharing 98.7 percent of their DNA with humans. Chimps and bonobos share 99.6 percent of their DNA with one another. Humans seem to take cues from both species in our behaviors.

Like chimps, humans are not shy about entering into violent conflict. Like bonobos, we share a close relationship with our children well into their adulthood. Bonobo mothers, like human mothers, are known to have a hand in helping their son select a mate after reaching maturity. For the bonobo, peaceful conflict resolution is the rule, whereas chimps are likely to kill one another over even minor offenses. Bonobos practice promiscuity as a means of peace-making; chimpanzees practice it to ensure their offspring will not be killed by a male who knows a baby is not his. Chimpanzees have slightly larger brains and engage in the use of tools, just as humans do. Bonobos are generally less likely to use tools than chimps.

The more scientists examine the genome of the bonobo and compare it to those of humans and chimps, the more they understand about how our genetics can drive our behavior. The key to why humans act the way we do may be locked somewhere in the 1.3 percent of DNA that we don’t share with our closest living relative. The genome mapping of the last species of great ape is the end of one research chapter and the start of a brand new one: a chapter that may ultimately lead us to a better understanding of what separates man from the other apes.

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