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Primate Genome Project demands more international cooperation

Xinhua| Updated: August 7, 2023 L M S

From googly-eyed tarsiers to heavy-furred golden snub-nosed monkeys, the Primate Genome Project has yielded a large amount of genetic information about primates, and demands more international cooperation to unlock hidden secrets of primates, including human beings, said Zhang Guojie, co-leader of the project, in a recent interview.

The Primate Genome Project, initiated in 2018, involves researchers from more than 50 institutes and colleges across the globe. The joint study aims to complete the genetic sequencing of more than 520 known primates on Earth in three phases within a decade.

In June, the project wrapped up its first phase, with genome data of 27 primate species released, and a series of research papers published.

At the Centre for Evolutionary & Organismal Biology at Zhejiang University, researchers are using a supercomputer platform to perform genome comparison and analysis on several petabytes of data collected, equivalent to millions of movies.

Knowing more about the genetic diversity of primates could improve the odds of saving highly endangered species, said Zhang, a professor at the center.

Meanwhile, as a member of the big family, human beings have been paying close attention to the origin and evolution of primates, said Zhang.

He introduced several key findings of the project, noting that the project will help answer the question of human origin and reveal more about the evolution of the human unique body structure and innovative traits.

For instance, the brain has grown larger at many evolutionary nodes of primates, which means the functions of some brain-related genes have been specifically strengthened. The mutations of these genes in modern human beings may lead to brain diseases.

Most primates are gregarious. Their social systems and the evolution of social behaviors are key and challenging areas in primate research. With the Primate Genome Project, scientists compared the genomes of Asian langurs, including golden snub-nosed monkeys. They found that a cold climate could have significantly promoted their temperate temperament and produced a complex social structure.

Zhang said that the project could also provide a significant reference to the understanding of human diseases.

According to Zhang, the AI lab under DNA-sequencing company Illumina used the genetic data collected in the project to train an AI model to interpret the pathogenicity of human genetic variants.

He explained that it is difficult to find the genetic locus of a rare disease as the mutations only appear in a small number of individuals. Natural selection tends to weed out mutations that cause severe illness. The AI model can grade genetic variations so that if the locus of a human mutation is also frequent in other primate species, it is unlikely to cause severe disease. Therefore, the researchers can use the diversified genetic information of primates to extrapolate the possible disease-causing genetic locus among human beings.

Zhang noted that they hope the project can decipher primates worldwide, which requires a massive effort with the participation of more international collaborators.

"On the one hand, we need to collect samples from more primate species, and at the same time, we need to carry out complementary cooperation between different disciplines to rapidly advance scientists' understanding of the evolutionary history of life," said Zhang.

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