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Mountain Gorillas and Inbreeding: The Path to Extinction or Salvation?

Apr 10, 2015 12:29 PM EDT
mountain gorillas

(Photo : Gorilla Doctors (UC Davis))

Mountain gorillas are currently suffering from a serious inbreeding problem, and while scientists everywhere worry that this will lead them down the path to extinction, one new genetic study says that it might in fact be their salvation.

This is the first study ever to sequence whole genomes from mountain gorillas, and it is helping shed light on the impact of population decline on these critically endangered apes.

"Mountain gorillas are among the most intensively studied primates in the wild, but this is the first in-depth, whole-genome analysis," Dr. Chris Tyler-Smith, corresponding author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said in a statement. "Three years on from sequencing the gorilla reference genome, we can now compare the genomes of all gorilla populations, including the critically endangered mountain gorilla, and begin to understand their similarities and differences, and the genetic impact of inbreeding."

Back in 1981, the number of mountain gorillas living in the Virunga volcanic mountain range - on the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo - plummeted to a mere 253 apes, thanks to habitat loss and hunting. Since then, conservationists have been working to restore their population, boosting their numbers to approximately 480 among the Virunga population.

However, while this is certainly an improvement, these mountain gorillas are not out of the woods yet. Scientists are concerned that severe inbreeding among this small population is causing decreased genetic diversity and threatening their very survival.

But now, researchers are saying that many harmful genetic variations had in fact been removed from the population through inbreeding, and that mountain gorillas are genetically adapting to surviving in small populations. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Rod Waddington/Wikimedia Commons)

"This new understanding of genetic diversity and demographic history among gorilla populations provides us with valuable insight into how apes and humans, their closely related cousins, adapt genetically to living in small populations," said Dr. Aylwyn Scally, corresponding author from the Department of Genetics at the University of Cambridge. "In these data we can observe the process by which genomes are purged of severely deleterious mutations by a small population size."

In the study, published in the journal Science, researchers were able to sequence the whole genomes of seven mountain gorillas for the first time using blood samples collected over several years. Previously, only poor-quality DNA from fecal and hair samples was available. This time around, scientists were able to compare the genomes of all four gorilla subspecies.

They found that these mountain gorillas - along with eastern lowland gorillas, their closely related neighbors - were two to three times less genetically diverse than gorillas from larger groups in western regions of central Africa.

What's more amazing is that mountain gorillas have managed to survive in small populations for thousands of years.

It has long been a concern that for a species that is already critically endangered, severe inbreeding would push them more towards extinction - that is, with low level of genetic diversity making them more vulnerable to environmental change and disease, including cross-infectious strains of human viruses. However, that does not appear to be the case.

The inbreeding has, in some ways, been genetically beneficial. For example, fewer harmful loss-of-function variants were found in the mountain gorilla population than in the more numerous western gorilla populations. These variants stop genes from working and can cause serious, often fatal, health conditions.

"We worried that the dramatic decline in the 1980s would be catastrophic for mountain gorillas in the long term, but our genetic analyses suggest that gorillas have been coping with small population sizes for thousands of years," concluded Dr. Yali Xue, first author from the Sanger Institute. "While comparable levels of inbreeding contributed to the extinction of our relatives the Neanderthals, mountain gorillas may be more resilient. There is no reason why they should not flourish for thousands of years to come."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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