Scientists produce genetic map of chimpanzees to fight human trafficking

Scientists have now mapped the genomes of 828 wild chimpanzees from across Africa using new sequencing techniques.

Scientists have produced the first genetic map of chimpanzees in the wild, detailing the endangered species’ past migrations and a new tool to fight illegal trade.

The genomic catalog, which includes 828 individuals from their vast African range, can now be used to identify abducted chimpanzees, or their meat and body parts— to their place of origin within 100 kilometres.

The results of the years-long research project were published on Wednesday in the journal Cell Genomics

First author Claudia Fontsere of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Spain told AFP: “If we measure the genetic diversity of this endangered speciesand its past demographic history…this can help design a better conservation plan.”

As part of the Pan-African program, DNA samples were collected from thousands of chimpanzee feces at 48 sites in Central and West Africa.

Fecal samples are a useful way to study endangered species, as they allow extensive collection with minimal interference to the animals.

But they also present technical challenges because they contain only trace amounts of host DNA.

To overcome these limitations, the team applied a new DNA sequencing technique called “target capture,” which was first used to study Neanderthals whose remains degraded over thousands of years.

This allowed them to discover 50 percent more variants on a particular chromosome — number 21 — than had been previously found, and from this they were able to infer gene flow between past chimpanzee populations, eliminating gaps in scientific understanding

Previously, only 59 whole genomes of chimpanzees had been sequenced, mostly from captive animals with limited information about their origin.

Complex migrations

Like humans, chimpanzees have a complex migration history, and the new research allowed scientists to look back at the past 100,000 years in a new level of detail.

“There has been a lot of debate about whether the four chimpanzee subspecies really diverged from each other or whether there has been an ongoing gene flow between them,” lead author Mimi Arandjelovic of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology told AFP.

“We’ve been able to show, using different analysis methods that look at very ancient and more recent variations, that history is complex, just like that of our own species.”

The team found that the chimpanzee subspecies were separated from each other in the past, but there were also periods of genetic exchange, which helped explain why previous studies attempting to reconstruct chimpanzees evolutionary history came to different conclusions.

They found that geographic barriers such as lakes and rivers also created genetic barriers between subspecies and between communities, and uncovered new insights about periods when chimpanzees interbred with bonobos.

Importantly, they confirmed that there was a high level of connectivity between western chimpanzees, underscoring the need to preserve connections between forests in West Africa, Arandjelovic said.

Fontsere explained that the genetic map could help pinpoint where illegally trafficked chimpanzees came from.

While reintroducing the chimpanzees to the wild is a difficult task due to the animals’ complex social structure, research has shown that they do better when placed in a rescue center near their place of origin.

“It can help Police to look at the more likely routes, we can trace it back,” Fontsere said.

Next, they hope to improve the genetic map with more samples, and, after proving fecal DNA as a viable option, expand its use to study other primates.

New method to trace the origin of illegally traded chimpanzees

More information:
Claudia Fontsere et al, Population dynamics and genetic connectivity in the recent history of chimpanzees, Cell Genomics (2022). DOI: 10.116/ … 2666-979X(22)00062-3

© 2022 AFP

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