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Bonobo Genome Revelation

Ulindi provided DNA for the sequencing of the bonobo genome

Scientists have completed the mapping of the bonobo genome. This means that all five great ape species – chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and humans – have now had their genomes mapped.

The research team, from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, found that bonobos share 99.6 percent of their genome with chimpanzees, and 98.7 percent of their genome with humans.

“Humans are a little like a mosaic of bonobo and chimpanzee genomes,” said study lead author Kay Pruefer, referring to the fact that bonobos and chimps have distinctly different behaviors, all of which can be found in humans.

Bonobos tend to be more peaceful, loving creatures, while chimps are more aggressive and tend to make war on other chimp tribes. Bonobos share food with complete strangers, whereas chimps do not. Bonobos, like humans, stay close to their mothers long after infancy. Chimps, like humans, use tools better and have bigger brains. Bonobos have matriarchal societies; chimps are led by an alpha male.

“There are certain parts of the human genome where you can see the humans are more closely related to bonobos than chimpanzees and other parts where they are more closely related to chimps than bonobos,” Dr. Pruefer said. “This is a much larger amount than we previously thought.”

The team used DNA samples from Ulindi, a bonobo at the Leipzig Zoo.

Bonobos, chimps and humans all shared a single common ancestor about 6 million years ago. Chimps and bonobos became separate species only a million years ago when the Congo River formed. Bonobos developed on one side of the river, chimps on the other.

“In this short time of a million years they developed these vastly different behaviors,” Dr. Pruefer said. “Which is intriguing because it means these behavioral patterns can change quite rapidly.”

Although we humans share many bonobo characteristics, we remain the most aggressive of all the great apes. Indeed, humans are the only great apes who are not seriously endangered – all four other species are now headed toward likely extinction before the end of this century.

The study is published in the journal Nature. Science magazine has a good explanation of the study, and Scientific American has a good commentary.