A new family tree for primates

A report published in the journal PLoS Genetics has produced a much-needed update of primate phylogeny. The study, which is the fruit of an international collaboration, greatly clarifies the evolutionary history of humans and our closest relatives.

The primate order is a large and complex group of over 260 species, ranging from the tiny mouse lemur to the mountain gorilla, which arose from a common ancestor existing approximately 90 million years ago. Although sequencing of the entire genome of 12 primate species is now almost complete, the taxonomy of the primates as a whole has remained controversial. To address this problem, researchers sampled 186 primate species, encompassing 61 genera. For every species sampled, DNA from 54 gene regions was sequenced, and a tree of relationships was generated using computer-based algorithms1. The reliability or ‘robustness’ of such evolutionary trees can be estimated; in this case the tree was found to be exceptionally robust, allowing it to settle some long-standing disputes about how certain primate groups are related. In addition, the analysis provides an estimate of the rate of evolutionary change along different lineages. In agreement with previous studies, the human lineage was found to be one of the slowest-evolving primate groups.

The revised primate phylogeny will be an invaluable resource for a wide range of scientists, including evolutionary biologists and taxonomists, those interested in primate biology and conservation, and biomedical researchers using comparative genomic approaches to understand human genetic disorders2.

Written by Emma Hatton-Ellis

  1. Perelman P, Johnson WE, Roos C, Seuánez HN, Horvath JE, et al. (2011) A molecular phylogeny of living primates. PLoS Genet 7(3): e1001342. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1001342 []
  2. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110317172047.htm []