Ignored DNA may be what separates humans from other primates

Components of DNA that do not encode protein sequences, known as non-encoded DNA, may hold the answers to why human brains function so differently from other primate species, according to a new report. study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Cellular stem cell, a broad-spectrum journal covering stem cell biology, in early October.

Stem cell researchers at Lund University in Sweden found that “uncoded DNA” shows differences in the brains of humans and non-human primates. Non-coding DNA was previously believed to have no practical function, even being considered “junk DNA” in scientific circles, making the discovery of particular interest to researchers.

The findings open up the field of possibilities for what makes humans different from other species, a subject that study author Johan Jakobsson, a professor of neuroscience at Lund University, is particularly curious about.

“I think the brain is the key to understanding what makes humans human. How did it come about that humans can use their brains in such a way that they can build societies, educate their children and develop advanced technology? Fascinating”, Jakobsson said.

The researchers grew human and chimpanzee brain cells using stem cells and compared the two cell types, finding that humans and chimpanzees use the uncoded part of their DNA in different ways, which appears to play a considerable role in the development of the human brain.

A chimpanzee (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

“The part of our DNA that was identified as different was unexpected,” said Jakobsson. “It was a putative structural variant of DNA that was previously called ‘junk DNA’, a long, repeating strand of DNA that was long considered to have no function.”

The so-called “junk DNA” comprises more than 98% of the DNA matter in the brains of humans and primates.

“Previously, researchers looked for answers in the part of DNA where protein-producing genes are found, which only make up about 2% of our complete DNA, and looked at the proteins themselves for examples of differences,” explained Jakobsson. Our results indicate that what has been significant for brain development, on the other hand, is perhaps hidden in the 98% (of the DNA matter) that is overlooked ”.

Perhaps the reason this new evidence came to light was the use of stem cells in research. Stem cells are unique in their ability to take the shape of various types of cells, as well as reproduce and proliferate without limits, and they are crucial for various forms of scientific research.

This novel stem cell research technique was recognized by the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Studying the differences between humans and chimpanzees using ethically defensible methods would not have been possible if this revolutionary technique had not been available, according to the researchers.

“Instead of studying living humans and chimpanzees, we use stem cells grown in a laboratory,” said Jakobsson.

The new findings will potentially contribute to genetic research regarding psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, a disorder that appears to be unique to humans.

“But there is a long way to go before we get to that point,” says Jakobsson, as “instead of conducting more research on the 2% encoded DNA, we may now be forced to dig into the entire 100% , a considerable amount more complicated task for the investigation ”, concludes.


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