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Age-rated genes help capuchin monkeys live longer

In a study from the University of Liverpool, researchers sequenced the genome of a capuchin monkey for the first time. The genetic analysis has revealed new clues about the evolution of the exceptionally long lives and big brains of capuchin monkeys.

“Capuchins have the largest relative brain size of any monkey and can live past the age of 50, despite their small size, but their genetic underpinnings had remained unexplored until now,” explained study co-author Professor Joao Pedro De Magalhaes.

The researchers used a comparative genomics approach to study the white-faced capuchin monkey against a wide variety of mammals. They identified genes associated with longevity and brain development that had been evolutionarily selected in capuchin monkeys.

Study senior author and Canada Research Chair Amanda Melin has studied capuchin monkey behavior and genetics for almost 20 years.

“We found signatures of positive selection on genes underlying both traits, which helps us to better understand how such traits evolve,” said Melin. “In addition, we found evidence of genetic adaptation to drought and seasonal environments by looking at populations of capuchins from a rainforest and a seasonal dry forest.”

The experts identified genes that are involved in DNA damage response, metabolism, cell cycle, and insulin signaling. DNA damage is thought to be a major contributor to aging. Previous studies by Professor de Magalhaes showed that genes involved in DNA damage responses exhibit selection patterns that are specific to longevity in mammals.

“Of course, because aging-related genes often play multiple roles it is impossible to be sure whether selection in these genes is related to aging or to other life-history traits, like growth rates and developmental times, that in turn correlate with longevity,” said Professor De Magalhaes.

“Although we should be cautious about the biological significance of our findings, it is tempting to speculate that, like in other species, changes to specific aging-related genes or pathways, could contribute to the longevity of capuchins.”

The research was made possible by the development of a new technique, FecalFACS, which allows experts to isolate DNA more efficiently from primate faeces.

“This is a major breakthrough because the typical way to extract DNA from faeces results in about 95-99% of the DNA coming from gut microbes and food items,” said study lead author Dr. Joseph Orkin.

“A lot of money has been spent sequencing genomes from different organisms than the mammals we’re actually trying to study. Because of this, when wildlife biologists have required entire genomes, they have had to rely on more pure sources of DNA, like blood, saliva, or tissue – but as you can imagine, those are very hard to come by when studying endangered animals.”

“FecalFACS finally provides a way to sequence whole genomes from free-ranging mammals using readily available, non-invasive samples, which could really help future conservation efforts.”

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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