Becoming Human: New Insights from Genome-wide Functional Genomics

| By Dennis Venema

Chart compares gains and losses of such sites in specific human cell lines to data from other human cell types. Regulatory gains in the human genome relative to the chimp genome are strongly correlated the with marks of positive selection.

We live in exciting times for a geneticist: more and more genomes are being sequenced, and more and more novel genome-wide analyses are being performed to shed light on what all those newly-determined sequences mean. These genomic studies powerfully support the common ancestry of humans with other forms of life, such as chimpanzees and other great apes. These studies have also measured ancient human population size dynamics with increasingly precise methods, indicating that (biologically at least) we do not descend solely from a single ancestral couple. These topics are ones that I have commented on frequently here, since—especially in our scientifically-informed age—the church must come to terms with these important issues.

Recently, an elegant and powerful experiment was done to further investigate a question of interest to many evangelicals: how is it that we are so different from our closest biological relative (the chimpanzee) when our DNA is so very similar? Even when using estimates that maximize the differences, our genomes are 95% identical. The conclusion, that I havediscussed here in the past is that a dispersed set of numerous small changes can have large effects on the form and function of an organism. Of course, small changes are what evolution specializes in: tinkering here and there, one mutation at a time, as we have directly observed in laboratory experiments. Before we discuss how this pivotal new study was done, however, a brief review of how genes work is in order.

Review: gene structure and function

If you’ve been following the ongoing Understanding Evolution series here at BioLogos, you will recall that we discussed gene structure and function not long ago, in the context of discussing non-functional DNA sequences (so-called “junk DNA”):

Genes have a typical structure (obviously simplified here somewhat). First off, there is the actual DNA sequence that specifies the protein product sequence (the so-called “coding sequence”, shown in blue). This sequence is usually broken up into segments in mammalian genes, and these sequences are spliced together when the DNA sequence of the gene is transcribed into a “working copy” called mRNA – a short duplicate of the code that can be used by the cell’s machinery to actually build the specified protein.

In addition to the actual coding sequences, other sequences are needed to tell the cell when and where certain genes should be transcribed into mRNA. Every cell in an organism has the same genes in their chromosomes, but not all are transcribed. Using different genes in different combinations is what makes cells take on distinct roles – for example, cells in your small intestine need different genes (for absorption of nutrients) than do cells of the immune system (for fighting off pathogens). Regulatory sequences make sure any given cell type has the right genes transcribed and made into protein products. Some of these sequences are part of the mRNA transcript (shown in red), and others are not transcribed but only part of the chromosomal DNA sequence (such as the “promoter” region that directs the enzymes responsible for making the mRNA transcript (shown in blue).

With this background in mind, we can now extend our understanding slightly further. DNA in cells is “packaged up” when not in use by winding it around a class of proteins called histones. This packaging keeps the DNA in a compact form, and it is useful in helping cells prevent genes they don’t need from being transcribed. For any given chromosome - which is one long strand of DNA – some regions will be packed away (and the genes there not transcribed), while other regions are unpacked (less tightly associated with histones) with the genes there actively undergoing transcription. The open regions allow for transcription because enzymes and other proteins needed for the process can gain access to the DNA there.

Comparing gene transcription across species at the genomic level

Because of the overwhelming similarity between the human and chimpanzee genomes (and the even greater similarity when examining only their protein-coding regions) it has long been hypothesized that changes in “where and when” genes are transcribed will be a major player in what makes our two species different (in contrast to the idea that we are different because of the relatively tiny changes in the coding regions of our genes). From an evolutionary point of view, there are a few ways to explore how differences in gene transcription arise once species go their separate ways, such as when our ancestors parted ways with our last common ancestor with chimps around 4-6 million years ago. The main idea is to compare the same cell type in both species: human skin cells versus chimp skin cells, for example. Determining what specific genes are transcribed (or not) in human cells and comparing the results to chimpanzee cells gives us an idea of how gene transcription differences arose in the two lineages since they last shared a common ancestor. The challenge, up until now, is that there was no easy way to indentify the changes in regulatory DNA that led to those differences in transcription. The problem arises because of the overwhelming similarities between our genomes: changes in transcription due to changes in DNA sequence are hard to find simply by looking for sequence differences, since in most cases the differences will be very small. There are also many small differences between our genomes that have no effect on gene transcription, so we cannot simply look for any difference at all. What we need is a way to identify which small changes led to differences in gene transcription.

Old hypotheses, new technology

Back in 2008, a method for addressing this issue was devised. As we have seen, DNA undergoing transcription is “unpacked” and accessible to enzymes. Researchers have long known about a certain enzyme, called DNAse I, that can cut exposed DNA but leave histone-packaged DNA alone. This means that DNA from any given cell type can be cut using this enzyme specifically at “DNAse I hypersensitive sites” (DHS’s) where regulatory DNA is unpackaged and a nearby gene is being transcribed. While this technique is decades old, what is new is a way to then go on to sequence the DNA next to each of these sites. This requires what is known as “next-generation” or “deep” DNA sequencing methods that can use a linker sequence to attach to the DNAse I cut sites and then amplify and sequence individual DNA fragments attached to the linker. Since we have the entire genome sequence of humans and chimps it is then trivial to take the sequencing results and map them to either genome. The results are a detailed map of what chromosome regions are unpacked and regulating transcription in each cell type. These maps can then be compared with related species across entire genomes.

It was only a matter of time before these powerful methods were applied to the human-chimp question, and thefirst results became available last month. The research group was of course interested in differences between the two species, and the results are fascinating. The researchers looked at several different cell types, and found similar results in all cases. The results for any given gene fall into one of several categories when compared to the human-chimp (H-C) last common ancestor:

  • No differences in regulatory DNA relative to the H-C last common ancestor (1259 genes)
  • Gain of regulatory DNA in humans relative to the H-C last common ancestor (836 genes)
  • Loss of regulatory DNA in humans relative to the H-C last common ancestor (286 genes)
  • Gain of regulatory DNA in chimpanzees relative to the H-C last common ancestor (676 genes)
  • Loss of regulatory DNA in chimpanzees relative to the last common ancestor (211 genes)

While it was not surprising to find a significant percentage of unchanged genes, it was interesting to note the large percentage of differences in regulatory DNA, despite the overwhelming genomic similarity between the two species. Small changes had a large impact on gene regulation. The researchers went on to examine the new regulatory regions they had identified, and found that they showed evidence of being under natural selection. These mutations had not only brought change, but provided an advantage to their hosts.

These results underscore a few important points:

  • Species become different because differences accumulate in both lineages once a common ancestral population splits into two. The differences we see in modern species are due to changes both species have accumulated over time.
  • Tweaking the regulation of numerous genes appears to be a widespread mechanism for generating evolutionary novelty. Both gaining and losing regulatory sequences is common.
  • These gains or losses in regulatory DNA require only very small changes at the DNA sequence level, but they can have profound impacts on how genes are transcribed.
  • These changes appear to be widespread in genomes, and able to accrue in short evolutionary timescales.
  • Small changes are exactly the sort of thing that evolution is known to be able to accomplish easily, one mutation at a time.
  • These small changes bear the marks of natural selection, indicating that they were selected for as they arose.
  • Anyone who wishes to call these differences “insignificant” will have to contend with the observation that the biological differences we observe between humans and chimpanzees are significant.
  • Small, incremental changes at the genomic level fit nicely with the fossil evidence for human evolution, which, though fragmentary, indicates gradual changes in skeletal morphology over the same timescale.

Of course, this study is just the beginning, and future studies are sure to examine and compare additional cell types found in humans and our evolutionary cousins. These results have already added to the troubles of antievolutionary groups that wish to portray the differences between us as too great for evolutionary mechanisms to bridge. I suspect these troubles will only worsen in the coming years as these new techniques come into their own.

For further reading:

Shibata Y, Sheffield NC, Fedrigo O, Babbitt CC, Wortham M, et al. (2012). Extensive Evolutionary Changes in Regulatory Element Activity during Human Origins Are Associated with Altered Gene Expression and Positive Selection. PLoS Genetics 8(6): e1002789. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1002789


About the Author

Dennis Venema

Dennis Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia and Fellow of Biology for BioLogos. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer. 


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