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Gene that may have helped make people smart ID’d

Nov. 14, 2012
Courtesy of the University of Edinburgh
and World Science staff

Re­search­ers have found a gene that they say helps ex­plain how hu­mans evolved from apes.

Called miR-941, it seems to have played a cru­cial role in brain de­vel­op­ment and may shed light on how we learn­ed to use tools and lan­guage, the sci­en­tists say. They add that it's the first time a new gene, car­ried only by peo­ple and not by apes, has been shown to have a spe­cif­ic func­tion in the body.

“This new mol­e­cule sprang from no­where at a time when our spe­cies was un­der­go­ing dra­mat­ic changes: liv­ing long­er, walk­ing up­right, learn­ing how to use tools and how to com­mu­ni­cate,” said Mar­tin Tay­lor of the Uni­vers­ity of Ed­in­burgh in Scot­land, who led the stu­dy. “We're now hope­ful that we will find more new genes that help show what makes us hu­man.”

The gene has been found to be highly ac­tive in two ar­eas of the brain that con­trol our de­ci­sion mak­ing and lan­guage abil­i­ties. The study sug­gests it could have a role in the ad­vanced brain func­tions that make us hu­man.

A team at the uni­vers­ity com­pared the hu­man ge­nome to 11 oth­er spe­cies of mam­mals, in­clud­ing chim­panzees, go­ril­las, mouse and rat, to find the dif­fer­ences be­tween them. The re­sults, pub­lished in the jour­nal Na­ture Commu­nica­t­ions, in­di­cate the gene is un­ique to hu­mans. The re­search­ers say it emerged be­tween six and one mil­lion years ago, af­ter the hu­man line­age had branched off from apes.

Most dif­fer­ences be­tween spe­cies oc­cur as a re­sult of changes to ex­ist­ing genes, or the du­plica­t­ion and de­le­tion of genes. But sci­en­tists say this gene emerged fully func­tional out of non-coding ge­net­ic ma­te­ri­al, pre­vi­ously termed “junk DNA,” in a startlingly short time in evo­lu­tion­ary terms.


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Researchers have found a gene that they say helps explain how humans evolved from apes. Called miR-941, it seems to have played a crucial role in brain development and may shed light on how we learned to use tools and language, the scientists say. They add that it's the first time a new gene, carried only by people and not by apes, has been shown to have a specific function in the body. “This new molecule sprang from nowhere at a time when our species was undergoing dramatic changes: living longer, walking upright, learning how to use tools and how to communicate,“ said Martin Taylor of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, who led the study. “We're now hopeful that we will find more new genes that help show what makes us human.“ The gene has been found to be highly active in two areas of the brain that control our decision making and language abilities. The study suggests it could have a role in the advanced brain functions that make us human. A team at the university compared the human genome to 11 other species of mammals, including chimpanzees, gorillas, mouse and rat, to find the differences between them. The results, published in the journal Nature Communications, indicate the gene is unique to humans. The researchers say it emerged between six and one million years ago, after the human lineage had branched off from apes. Most differences between species occur as a result of changes to existing genes, or the duplication and deletion of genes. But scientists say this gene emerged fully functional out of non-coding genetic material, previously termed “junk DNA,“ in a startlingly short time.