Eastern Gorillas Have Developed Harmful Mutations, Study Finds

Posted: Dec 29 2018, 5:56am CST | by , in Latest Science News


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Eastern Gorillas have Developed Harmful Mutations, Study Finds
Historical collections of eastern gorilla specimens. Credit: Katerina Guschanski

Genome analysis shows that decline in gorilla population has led to increased inbreeding and a loss of genetic variation.

Eastern gorillas, which are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are experiencing lack of genetic diversity and harmful mutations. To arrive at this conclusion, researchers have sequenced eleven genomes from eastern gorilla specimens collected up to 100 years ago and compared them with present-day individuals. The project to sequence genomes from Eastern gorillas has given conservationists new insight into their health and could also have implications for saving this critically endangered ape.

Grauer's gorilla, one of the two subspecies of Eastern gorilla, has declined rapidly in recent decades due to poaching and habitat destruction. The decline has led to increased inbreeding and a loss of genetic variation. As a result, Grauer's gorillas have likely become more susceptible to disease outbreaks. In addition, researchers have identified several mutations that appear to be evolved as a consequence of the decline in population size.

Researchers have long suspected that decline in Grauer's gorilla population has resulted in losses of genetic diversity, increased inbreeding and an accumulation of harmful mutation. The challenge was to identify changes in genetic viability over time. For this purpose, researchers from Uppsala University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History used specimens stored in museum collections and analyzed them to see changes in eastern gorilla genomes over the past 100 years. Researchers found that Grauer's gorillas have been severely affected by dramatic decline over the years. Interestingly, the second subspecies of Eastern gorilla has seen a small rebound in its numbers. The mountain gorillas have also showed no significant genetic changes, suggesting that their genetic viability has remained stable.

"We found that the genetic diversity in Grauer's gorilla has declined significantly in just a few generations.” Tom van der Valk from Uppsala University in Sweden said.

As population gets smaller, Grauer's gorillas have difficulties avoiding inbreeding. But increased inbreeding makes them less adaptable to diseases and changes in the environment that could accelerate their decline. With inbred gorillas, males can become infertile and lack disease resistance. Some of the potentially harmful mutations that have increased in frequency were found in genes associated with finger and toe development, which likely explains why present-day gorillas sometimes have webbed feet.

Love Dalén, a researcher at the Swedish Museum of Natural History says. “This recent increase in harmful mutations really emphasizes the need to reverse the ongoing population decline in Grauer's gorillas.”

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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