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scientists react to new chimp research published in Nature

Professor Chris Stringer, hominid researcher, Department of Palaeontology, Natural History Museum, said:

“On the chimp fossil find – this shows us that the chimp was much more widespread in the past than we realized, although this isn’t too much of a surprise because our early ancestors were also widespread. Humans have a 6 million year ancestral line but we know very little about chimp evolution – it is essentially a blank slate. “This will also encourage people to seek out chimp fossils in areas that we haven’t looked in before. Finding more fossils may show that there were more than two species of chimp in the past, in fact their evolution could be as diverse as humans.

“On the chimp genome – most scientists do not question that our nearest relative is the chimp. Now we have the sequence of one of the two chimp species, we need to focus on the other species. This would allow us to get closer to imagining what our common ancestor was like.

“This paper is timely, given the growth of anti-evolutionary ideas in the US. Demonstration of how evolution occurred is more important than ever. It is even more important for us to be able to show how our closest relatives evolved and the genome will enable us to look at evolutionary processes. We want to know what changed, when it happened and what made it change.”

Dr Robert Foley, Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge, said:

“All biology – and especially evolutionary biology – is about comparison, for that is how we find out what makes each species different. Adding the chimp genome to the knowledge of the human one is a major step towards a greater understanding of humans and their biology and evolution.

“The genome alone is not enough to tell us about a species, whether it’s a human, a chimp or a mouse. However, in the context of the rest of an animal’s biology and behaviour, genetics is an essential element and necessary to understand both what is ‘genetic’ and what is not.”

Dr. Simon Fisher, Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, Oxford University, said:

“The unveiling of the draft genome sequence from our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, represents a scientific milestone with far-reaching implications, in part because it provides an essential new resource in the search for what makes us human. However, this is best viewed as an exciting starting point. In the same way that knowledge of our own genome sequence has not automatically led to a full understanding of human biology, so the decoding of other primate genomes will not, by itself, reveal exactly what sets us apart.

“As a consequence of this research, we now have access to a virtually complete catalogue of every genetic difference between a human and a chimpanzee. But the initial comparisons show that the vast majority of these changes have probably accumulated through neutral processes and will not explain defining features of the human condition. So, the big challenge for the future is to pinpoint the tiny subset of differences that account for the origins of unusual human traits, such as complex language. Success will depend not only on the availability of genomic sequences, but also on fostering collaboration across diverse disciplines, including genetics, psychology, anthropology and developmental biology.”

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