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Jul 04, 2013 09:42 AM EDT

New Study of Primates' 15 Million Year Genetic History Could Help Understand HIV, Autism

University of Washington (UW) researchers have revealed the history and evolution of great apes over the last 15 million years, according to a press release on the school's website.

The results will likely help right away and in the future for preservation efforts aiming to maintain natural genetic diversity. The study was conducted with samples from 17 apes born in the wild and in captivity representing all six species and seven subspecies.

UW researchers participated in the study that included more than 75 scientists and wildlife conservationists from all over the globe.

UW's Evan Eichler and Peter H. Sudmant worked with Javier Prado Martinez and Tomas Marques-Bonet from Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain on the study published Wednesday.

"The research provided us the deepest survey to date of great ape genetic diversity with evolutionary insights into the divergence and emergence of great-ape species," said Eichler, a UW professor of genome sciences.

Before this study, it had been difficult for scientists to obtain genetic samples from apes born in the wild because they were located in dangerous or isolated areas of the world. The research team credited the success of the study to the wildlife conservationists who had to obtain those samples.

"Gathering this data is critical to understanding differences between great ape species, and separating aspects of the genetic code that distinguish humans from other primates," Sudmant, a UW graduate student, said.

Now that a wide range of data has been gathered, scientists can analyze it for answers to genetic questions. The analysis is expected to reveal how natural selection, population growth and decline, geographic isolation, migration, climate and other changes that affected primates' evolution.

The study also included nine samples of human genome and the team thinks this study can help answer questions surrounding HIV and other immunodeficiency viruses, as many of the primates came from numerous parts of Africa, the origin of AIDS. The analysis could also help scientists understand better cognitive and behavioral diseases such as schizophrenia and autism, or developmental delay.

"Because the way we think, communicate and act is what makes us distinctively human," Sudmant said, "We are specifically looking for the genetic differences between humans and other great apes that might confer these traits."

Sudmant emphasized the main goal of the study: preservation.

"If you look at a chimpanzee or a gorilla, those guys will look right back at you," he said, "They act just like us. We need to find ways to protect these precious species from extinction."

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