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April 19, 2007

UW scientists advance macaque genome research

An international consortium of scientists has completed a draft sequence of the genome of the rhesus macaque, a species of non-human primate that is widely used for creating models of human diseases and infections. The study could allow researchers to watch disease progression at the genetic level in macaques, a close relative of humans. The findings, which appear in the April 13 issue of Science, will also teach us more about how humans and other primates evolved into distinct species.

Several years ago, UW microbiologist Michael Katze and his colleague, Jeffrey Rogers, a researcher at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas, paved the way for this project when they publicly called for the sequencing project and hosted a research symposium in Seattle to discuss how to improve the understanding of macaque biology. Unlocking the rhesus macaque genome, they argued, would give researchers more powerful tools in understanding the processes of disease and infection in an animal model that is much more closely related to humans than other disease-model organisms, like mice.

Katze, who assisted in the sequencing project, is a UW professor of microbiology and researcher in the Washington National Primate Research Center’s Functional Genomics and Infectious Disease division. The genome sequence will allow researchers to analyze in a genetic microarray what is going on at the genetic level in tissue affected by disease. That sort of work has not been possible before in non-human primates.

Evan Eichler, UW associate professor of genome sciences, was also involved in the sequence analysis effort. Eichler and his colleagues looked at the large-scale structural organization of the macaque genome, and how that structure differs from that of humans and other primates. They found that compared to humans and chimpanzees, macaques seem to have fewer so-called genome segmental duplications, where a particular chunk of genetic code is repeated over and over again for a large section of the genome.

They also found that the pattern of macaque segmental duplications differed significantly from that of the human genome, and that many of these regions contained genes related to immune system response. Researchers will need to focus on those areas of segmental duplications to resolve them to a higher standard of quality, Eichler said, and learn how those duplications may translate into functional differences in the macaque immune system.