Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Chimp genome hype

Last week Nature journal dedicated a lot of the issue to "celebrate" the release of a draft version of the chimp genome. Why all this hype ? The amount of attention a genome sequence receives nowadays inversely correlates with the divergence time from human. The only outliers are genome of species related to human diseases or human habits. We want desperately to understand what makes us "different" but I am not sure that solving the chimp genome will actually tell us much about this.

We can benefit from a sequenced genome in two general ways: 1) provide a guide to the experimental work done with a species and 2) use it for comparative genomics studies to help highlight general principles. Clearly the chimp genome will be of use for people working on chimp biology but I doubt that the chimp genome can tell us much about the human species, simply because we are not actually that different and the small differences will be hard to find. I say this because the molecular basis for the changes that make us "unique" are most likely regulatory changes and these are very hard to spot by comparative genomics alone, particularly if the genomes used are of species that diverged recently from the species of interest.

It comes also of little surprise that the most interesting points about the comparative human-chimp analysis, described more in detail in accompanying articles, relate to evolutionary events that occur at a fast rates and can easily be detected, big changes in chromosomal arrangements.

A lot of discoveries will still be made with comparative genomics but it seams we are reaching a point when another genome adds more statistical power but reveals little surprises. Maybe we could focus some of the efforts and resources to gather other high throughput data like protein interaction networks, transcription factor binding sites, expression data ...

The same way we gain so much with comparative genomics we might gain a lot with the ability to compare different protein interaction networks.

Some thoughts from Bioinformatics blog