Researchers at Duke University have attempted to describe how our brain grew significantly larger than our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee, if our genes are practically all the same.
The size of the human brain expanded in a dramatic manner during our evolution into Homo Sapiens, attributing to the development of abstract thinking and language, as well as complex problem solving in fields such as mathematics.
The team at Duke have found that humans are equipped with slight differences in a regulator of gene activity, called HARE5, that when introduced into a mouse embryo, led to larger brain development than in the embryos treated with the HARE5 sequence from chimpanzees.
After adding the human HARE5 sequence to a group of mice embryos, and the chimp HARE5 sequence to another group of mice embryos, the researchers found that the neocortex, involved in higher-level function such as language and reasoning, was the region of the brain affected most (12% bigger in the human HARE5 mice than the chimp HARE5 mice).
The human HARE5 and the chimpanzee HARE5 gene sequences differ by only 16 letters in their genetic code, so any differences would seem insignificant. Nonetheless, the study demonstrated that in mice embryos, the human enhancer activates earlier in development and is more active in general than the chimpanzee enhancer.
“What we found is a piece of the genetic basis for why we have a bigger brain, ” study co-author Gregory Wray of the Duke Center for Genomic and Computational Biology said. “It really shows in sharp relief just how complicated those changes must have been. This is probably only one piece – a little piece.”