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Why We're Different from Chimps

One of the mysteries of DNA is how we can share so many genes with chimpanzees, and yet be so different from them. Now scientists say this has to do with which genes have been "turned on." There has been speculation that chimps were intentionally altered long ago by scientists from another world, in order to create humans. While there is no proof of this, now we know how it would have been done.

Becky McCall writes in bbcnews.com that human and chimpanzee DNA differs by just 1.2%. Researcher Svante Paabo believes the key lies in the degree to which the genes are expressed in each species. He says, "It's about the extent to which genes are turned on, where and when in the brain?In any particular part of the brain about 10% of our gene activity differs from those of chimpanzees."

Paabo has found two tiny but important differences in the gene responsible for speech and language skills. Like most other animals, chimps have a much better sense of smell than we do, so this is one area where their genes for smell are "turned on," while ours aren't. He says, "The gene involved in our sense of smell encodes for receptors in our noses, and we have found that we are losing a large fraction them and are becoming progressively worse at smelling. So as our language ability has improved, our sense of smell has deteriorated. The other gene is that which has been positively selected for speech and language ability within the last 200,000 years or so."

Researcher Tim Hubbard is studying why chimps are immune to many human diseases, such as malaria and AIDS, despite being genetically so similar to us. He says, "By looking closely at the variation of disease genes between chimps and humans we'll gain a greater understanding of disease processes which in turn may lead to the development of better medicines."

On the few maps on which it can be found, Plum Island is stamped U.S. government?restricted or dangerous animal diseases. Though many people live the good life within a scant mile or two from its shores, few know that West Nile and Lyme Disease may been developed there?and escaped into their suburban neighborhoods.

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