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Wednesday, October 4th 2006

Answer: The Ability To Write A Blog

And no, I don’t think a chimp could do a better job than me!

He’d Probably Have Less Gramatical Errors…But That’s All The Credit I’m Giving Him!

Time’s October 1st cover article is, “What Makes Us Different?

Somewhere in the nuclei of our cells are handfuls of amino acids, arranged in a specific order, that endow us with the brainpower to outthink and outdo our closest relatives on the tree of life. They give us the ability to speak and write and read, to compose symphonies, paint masterpieces and delve into the molecular biology that makes us what we are.

Until recently, there was no way to unravel these crucial differences. Exactly what gives us advantages like complex brains and the ability to walk upright–and certain disadvantages, including susceptibility to a particular type of malaria, AIDS and Alzheimer’s, that don’t seem to afflict chimps–remained a mystery.


[A] team led by Pääbo announced that the human version of a gene called FOXP2, which plays a role in our ability to develop speech and language, evolved within the past 200,000 years–after anatomically modern humans first appeared. By comparing the protein coded by the human FOXP2 gene with the same protein in various great apes and in mice, they discovered that the amino-acid sequence that makes up the human variant differs from that of the chimp in just two locations out of a total of 715–an extraordinarily small change that may nevertheless explain the emergence of all aspects of human speech.


[O]verall, the sequences of base pairs that make up [the human and chimpanzee] genomes differ by 1.23%–a ringing confirmation of the 1970s estimates–and that the most striking divergence between them occurs, intriguingly, in the Y chromosome, present only in males.


This shockingly small number [of genes] made it clear to scientists that genes alone don’t dictate the differences between species; the changes, they now know, also depend on molecular switches that tell genes when and where to turn on and off. “Take the genes involved in creating the hand, the penis and the vertebrae,” says Lovejoy. “These share some of the same structural genes. The pelvis is another example. Humans have a radically different pelvis from that of apes. It’s like having the blueprints for two different brick houses. The bricks are the same, but the results are very different.”


[E]ven the most ardent proponents of genome-comparison research acknowledge that pretty much everything we know so far is preliminary. “We’re interested in traits that really distance us from other organisms,” says Wisconsin’s Carroll, “such as susceptibility to diseases, big brains, speech, walking upright, opposable thumbs. Based on the biology of other organisms, we have to believe that those are very complex traits. The development of form, the increase in brain size, took place over a long period of time, maybe 50,000 generations. It’s a pretty complicated genetic recipe.”