Sequencing the Bonobo genome


June 24, 2012

Recent years have seen the decoding of the human genome, then that of our closest human relative, now extinct, Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). The Chimpanzee genome has been analyzed and now is the turn of the often overlooked sister species to Chimpanzees, the Bonobos.

An article entitled “”The bonobo genome compared with the chimpanzee and human genomes”  by Kay Puffer et al. in the June 13 issue of thee journal Nature describes how the Bonobo genome was decoded and offers some conclusions.

The abstract of the article and its opening paragraphs read as follows:


Two African apes are the closest living relatives of humans: the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and the bonobo (Pan paniscus). Although they are similar in many respects, bonobos and chimpanzees differ strikingly in key social and sexual behaviours and for some of these traits they show more similarity with humans than with each other. Here we report the sequencing and assembly of the bonobo genome to study its evolutionary relationship with the chimpanzee and human genomes. We find that more than three per cent of the human genome is more closely related to either the bonobo or the chimpanzee genome than these are to each other. These regions allow various aspects of the ancestry of the two ape species to be reconstructed. In addition, many of the regions that overlap genes may eventually help us understand the genetic basis of phenotypes that humans share with one of the two apes to the exclusion of the other.

“Whereas chimpanzees are widespread across equatorial Africa, bonobos live only south of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As a result of their relatively small and remote habitat, bonobos were the last ape species to be described2 and are the rarest of all apes in captivity. As a consequence, they have, until recently, been little studied2. It is known that whereas DNA sequences in humans diverged from those in bonobos and chimpanzees five to seven million years ago, DNA sequences in bonobos diverged from those in chimpanzees around two million years ago. Bonobos are thus closely related to chimpanzees. Moreover, comparison of a small number of autosomal DNA sequences has shown that bonobo DNA sequences often fall within the variation of chimpanzees.

Bonobos and chimpanzees are highly similar to each other in many respects. However, the behaviour of the two species differs in important ways. For example, male chimpanzees use aggression to compete for dominance rank and obtain sex, and they cooperate to defend their home range and attack other groups3. By contrast, bonobo males are commonly subordinate to females and do not compete intensely for dominance rank1. They do not form alliances with one another and there is no evidence of lethal aggression between groups. Compared with chimpanzees, bonobos are playful throughout their lives and show intense sexual behaviour that serves non-conceptive functions and often involves same-sex partners. Thus, chimpanzees and bonobos each possess certain characteristics that are more similar to human traits than they are to one another’s. No parsimonious reconstruction of the social structure and behavioural patterns of the common ancestor of humans, chimpanzees and bonobos is therefore possible. That ancestor may in fact have possessed a mosaic of features, including those now seen in bonobo, chimpanzee and human.”

Read more of this Nature articlde.