Genomic Comparisons Will Have Increasing Importance in Human Biology and Medicine

TThe genomes of chimpanzees and humans are 99.9% identical, yet the differences between the two species are vast. The relatively few differences in genetic endowment must explain the possession of language by humans, the extraordinary athleticism of chimpanzees, and myriad other differences. Genomic comparison will allow researchers to identify candidate genes linked to divergences in the developmental programs of humans and the other primates and to the emergence of complex functions such as language. The picture will become clearer only as more primate genomes become available for comparison with the human genome.

Similarly, the differences in genetic endowment among humans are vanishingly small compared with the differences between humans and chimpanzees, yet these differences account for the variety among us— including differences in health and in susceptibility to chronic diseases. We have much to learn about the variability in sequence among humans, and during the next decade the availability of genomic information will almost certainly transform medical diagnosis and treatment. We may expect that for some genetic diseases, palliatives will be replaced by cures; and that for disease susceptibilities associated with particular genetic markers, forewarning and perhaps increased preventive measures will prevail. Today's "medical history" may be replaced by a "medical forecast." ■

SUMMARY 1.5 Evolutionary Foundations

■ Occasional inheritable mutations yield an organism that is better suited for survival in an ecological niche and progeny that are preferentially selected. This process of mutation and selection is the basis for the Darwinian evolution that led from the first cell to all the organisms that now exist, and it explains the fundamental similarity of all living organisms.

■ Life originated about 3.5 billion years ago, most likely with the formation of a membrane-enclosed compartment containing a self-replicating RNA molecule. The components for the first cell were produced by the action of lightning and high temperature on simple atmospheric molecules such as CO2 and NH3.

■ The catalytic and genetic roles of the early RNA genome were separated over time, with DNA becoming the genomic material and proteins the major catalytic species.

■ Eukaryotic cells acquired the capacity for photosynthesis and for oxidative phosphorylation from endosymbiotic bacteria. In multicellular organisms, differentiated cell types specialize in one or more of the functions essential to the organism's survival.

■ Knowledge of the complete genomic nucleotide sequences of organisms from different branches of the phylogenetic tree provides insights into the evolution and function of extant organisms and offers great opportunities in human medicine.

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