What Can We Expect to Learn from Wood Ape DNA?

By Michael C. Mayes, with contributions from Alton Higgins, Ed Harrison, and Brad McAndrews

[The following article originally appeared at the Texas Cryptid Hunter's Blogsite; it has been slightly modified for the North American Wood Ape Conservancy website and it is used here with the express consent of Michael C. Mayes].

With the cryptozoological community all aflutter over the Bryan Sykes DNA study, I thought now would be a good time to discuss what exactly it is we might expect should viable wood ape DNA ever be successfully obtained. I can’t take credit for the question. Fellow NAWAC investigator Ed Harrison posed the question on the NAWAC's private online forum. Some of the specific questions raised by Harrison were: Will we be able to determine the origins of the wood ape species (geographically)? From which branch of the primate tree did the species spring? How big do they really get? Many other questions were raised and discussed as well but you get the idea.

What we do know is that simply observing/documenting DNA similarities between species says little, or may say very little, about morphological and/or behavioral similarities. A good example of this is the comparison of human and chimp DNA, which shows great overlap.

For example, let’s assume that wood ape DNA is 99 percent comparable to that of a modern human. That, in and of itself, wouldn’t mean they are “human” as we understand the concept. Significant differences could result from factors controlling the expression of genes. The sequence in which genes are activated during development, the duration in which the genes are active, epigenetic factors controlling which genes may be turned off, these factors could produce creatures that are very different from “us” even if the DNA is nearly identical.

Another NAWAC member with great expertise in this area is Brad McAndrews. Brad holds an ABHI certificate from the American Board of Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics and is a Certified Histocompatibility Specialist (also known as a Clinical Histocompatibility Scientist in some states). Brad received his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin (B.S. in Biology with concentration in Genetics and Biotechnology) and followed that with five years of intensive training at a clinical laboratory of the University of Texas Health and Science Center in Houston, Texas. All of that to say, Brad knows what he is talking about when it comes to genetics. Following is a summary of Brad’s thoughts to the questions posed above (with some input from Alton Higgins, a wildlife biologist, a retired biology professor, and Chairman of the NAWAC):


What can we expect to find in the DNA?

McAndrews: “The study of the wood ape genome will be multifaceted in that several scientists and organizations of varying expertise will study their genes of interest. It will take years to draw lines of correlation between parallel species but science will begin to produce results, the wood ape blueprint, in only days. We will learn about their growth curves, metabolic characteristics, endocrine pathways, and we’ll be able to make discoveries from other genetic linkages already being studied in the higher primates. The endocrine system drives the growth and development cycle from the fetal stage through adolescence (and even adulthood). We’ll learn a great deal from studying the endocrine system (which includes hormones, etc) including various physical attributes including relative musculature, to things like emotional states, sleep patterns, and details of the reproductive system. We’ll learn about its dietary capabilities and/or restrictions by studying certain metabolic factors.

We will learn details on their ability to learn, hearing, sight, the ability to vocally enunciate (both vowels and consonants) – the FOXP2 gene. We’ll learn some interesting things about how they learn, and where their strongest cognitive and/or involuntary cerebral strengths lay. One of the biggest, and most complicated, targets of the wood ape genome will focus on facets of the immune system. Studies of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) and human leukocyte antigen (HLA) repertoire will teach us a lot about disease susceptibilities and as well as possible new constructs (i.e. mutations) that may help the wood ape fight certain diseases – like Lyme or RMSF. HLA is my particular field of study. No doubt, the discovery of the wood ape will lead to new treatments for mankind. I foresee a day when cells from the wood ape are cloned and distributed (for profit) for study all across the globe. New drugs and therapies will emerge after studying certain aspects of the wood ape immunopathology and it constructs.

We’ll also learn many other things that are not specifically related to the wood ape’s nuclear or mitochondrial genome. Various microbiotomes will be discovered in the animal’s gut flora and new bacterial species/populations may be found on the epidermis (skin) or mouth cavity. We could learn a lot simply by swabbing the cheek of an ape…. We might learn what types of foods they eat even if their entire digestive tract is empty. We can learn about how they metabolize certain foods and compounds.”


Is the wood ape a descendent of Gigantopithecus blackii? What is the evolutionary lineage?

McAndrews: “This question will be answered very quickly by sequencing the < 20,000 base pairs of DNA from the mitochondrial genome and comparing that to what data is available for G. blackii. This is easy science. Compare this to all the highly mutagenic interesting stuff found in the more than 3 billion base pairs of the nuclear genome!"


What can we expect to find within a non-contaminated sample of tissue/blood that has been scientifically proven to be valid?

McAndrews: “We’ll discover a great many things (as we touched on above). The difficult part of this is that in the scenario where we’ve only a small amount of blood/tissue, proving the existence of this creature as a valid species has limitations. The specimen itself, in this case, is a limiting factor, which could prevent full independent and reproducible study. Basically, science demands that third-party laboratories reproduce the same data set to support the initial find thus creating a 'theory.' Ideally, this would include the initial steps of DNA isolation/extraction from the specimen in question. In the case with our Echo samples, we’ve only two very small and degraded residues… That’s huge limitation for us.”


Will we find the origins of wood apes (geography)?

McAndrews: “Information on evolutionary history and genetic lineage/origins may be pulled from the mitochondrial genome of a given species. Even without the full mitochondrial genome, much of this information is attainable by analyzing comparative evolution of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene – a humble 1,200 base pairs of information. Determining geographic origin, however, would require an existing known ancestral 'anchor' species in a given geography. When comparisons between two closely related species are being made, this information becomes less reliable because of limitations in sample (that being the gene targeted for sequencing) size. In these cases, additional sequence targets are valuable. Basically, the targeted gene of study may be too highly conserved between the two species. There are only 33 mutations between human and chimp, a mere two percent variation. What might we expect with the wood ape? The comparisons are so alike that it brings into question human contamination… A more likely conclusion to an odd result that ‘looks human.’ (Scally, et al, 2012)."


How far back does the gene pool go (timeline)?

McAndrews: “A gene pool is actually a collection of all heredities that currently exist in a given and accessible (in regards to breeding) population. That is, how variable (i.e. stable) is the gene pool of the wood ape population? I think what you’re trying to ask is 'how far back did this animal branch out from the tree of life?' The answer to this question would be one of the first addressed via the sequencing of the mitochondrial (maternally inherited) genome. Thankfully it would be the easiest of all to answer in terms of testing and it would provide answers to those questions related to its evolution history and origins. This is what I am most curious about personally. I think this is true for many. This is also where Bryan Sykes holds his expertise. A simple science in today’s world, (BBC Horizon, 2005).”


From which branch of the primate tree did the species spring?

McAndrews: “This will quickly be answered by producing a mitochondrial sequence of the organism. Less than one week of time to produce this data set and a couple-few minutes to run a comparison on GeneBank.”


How tall [do] these animals really get (physical attributes), etc.?

Alton Higgins: “Simply observing/documenting DNA similarities between species says little, or may say very little, about morphological and/or behavioral similarities. A good example of this is the comparison of human and chimp DNA, which shows great overlap," (A. Higgins, personal communication, October 15, 2013).

McAndrews: "While this may certainly be true in a broader context, much of the data derived from genome-wide association studies of similar but different species provide a veritable treasure trove of information that holds value in describing both physical and behavioral phenotypes for a given species.

Take a look at the following article [originally appearing at Nature.com], for instance, where it says, ‘As expected, most of the human genome was closer to the chimp’s than to the gorilla’s. But in about 15 percent of the genome, human and gorilla resemble each other the most. In another 15 percent, chimp and gorilla DNA are closer to each other than chimp is to human. The analysis also found gene variants in gorillas that are harmless to them but are linked to dementia and heart failure in people. …If we could understand more about why those variants are so harmful in humans but not in gorillas, that would have important medical implications,'" (Chang, 2012, AP).

Alton Higgins: "Significant differences could result from factors controlling the expression of genes. The sequence in which genes are activated during development, the duration in which the genes are active, epigenetic factors controlling which genes may be turned off, these factors could produce creatures that are very different from ‘us’ even if the DNA is nearly identical," (A. Higgins, personal communication, October 15, 2013).

McAndrews: "Absolutely spot on here.  This is where the revolution in medical genetics (ever heard of this?) will make its biggest strides. Epigenetic gene expressions are influenced by a number of different ‘micro factors’ which may be stimulated by environmental factors and/or stressors. These changes in expression can be either minute or significant. Some changes due to environmental change show themselves phenotypically, while others do not. Many are expressed temporarily, some longer, some for a lifetime, and some are heritable through successive generations (given the continued presence of external pressures). Epigenetic factors, however, are functional in ways that do not cause mutation, or change, to the nucleotide sequence of the organism’s DNA but rather they cause the DNA to be ‘read’ in different ways. This results in coding for different proteins, turning off certain active genes, or by turning on certain dormant ones. Some mechanisms actually modify DNA locally let’s say, for instance, in the epidermis/skin by adding methyl groups to DNA or RNA, or by binding protein to genetic receptors to inactivate a certain from being expressed. This influences the underlying DNA in a way that it is transcribed (or ‘read’) differently than it was before. You know how some mammals grow thicker coats of fur in the winter and then lose it in the spring? That’s a perfect example of how these factors can influence a change in expression as a product of seasonal changes in temperature (the environmental catalyst). Another fantastic example of epigenetic expression can be seen when a domesticated hog goes feral. Genetic expressions may change very quickly due to environmental stressors, or change. It does not take long before offspring start to resemble feral hogs (the Wild type organism) again with their stunted snouts becoming elongated; hair becoming longer and increasingly coarse, their tusks even grow at faster rates. The domestic pig that gets loose will even begin to show/express ‘feral’ characteristics with longer/thicker hair, increased virility, and quick change in behavior. This is due to something called ‘phenotypic plasticity,’ which is a mechanism that involves a lot of epigenetic factors, caused by environmental alteration or habitat, and which results in changes in genetic expressions – both in phenotype (physical change) and even behavior. The immune system is also greatly influenced by these factors (Louchart & Viriot, 2011), (Ralston & Shaw, 2008) .

Anyhow, bottom line is this… just because an organism’s DNA looks similar to another’s from a bird’s-eye view perspective, does not mean that the two organisms are one in the same, or even close to being similar to one another physically, mentally, etc. There is A LOT of stuff going on that goes much deeper than the mere DNA blueprint and we’re just beginning to make sense of it all. We do have a long way to go, sure, but huge strides are being made in the way of knowledge. I can say the following with great confidence, without the detailed genetic comparisons of closely related species, none of these gains in knowledge would be possible.”

***

Whether the Sykes study yields wood ape DNA remains to be seen. I do think Brad has given us a very good idea of what to expect if and when Sykes, or anyone else, does come up with a viable genetic sample.

One other question sprang to mind when Sykes examined alleged yeti hair and identified it as belonging to a supposedly long extinct species of bear:

Will mainstream science recognize the existence of a large mammalian species thought to be long extinct based solely on DNA evidence?

IF the scientific community accepts Sykes’ results and officially recognizes this ancient bear as a living, breathing species that still walks the earth then the “no-kill” crowd may finally have a valid argument as to why a wood ape specimen should not be collected. If, however, the scientific community refuses to recognize the existence of this ancient bear, a species that they KNOW actually did exist at one point, then there is zero chance that wood ape DNA alone will suffice in documenting the species. If the existence of this ancient bear remains unrecognized after intense DNA study then it should become crystal clear to everyone that the only way to prove the existence of the sasquatch, or wood ape, is by the taking of a holotype. There would simply be no other way.

[As of the date of the publishing of this article on the NAWAC website, April 4, 2014, it should be noted that neither governmental nor scientific entities have initiated actions in and/or around the Himalayas declaring Sykes's so-called relict polar bear a unique, extant (or extinct) species, protecting it from harm, conserving its environment, or even putting boots on the ground to learn more about it].


References

BBC Horizon (Producer). (2005). The ghost in your genes, (parts 1-5). (Available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toRIkRa1fYU).

Chang, A. (2012). Genome study finds some gorilla DNA aping our own. Associated Press. Retrieved from http://news.yahoo.com/genome-study-finds-gorilla-dna-aping-own-183311808.html

Louchart, A., & Viriot, L. (2011). From snout to beak: the loss of teeth in birds. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 26(12), 663-673. Abstract retrieved from http://www.researchgate.net/publication/51705217_From_snout_to_beak_the_loss_of_teeth_in_birds/file/72e7e5257bb12cd6c6.pdf

Ralston, A., & Shaw, K. (2008). Gene expression regulates cell differentiation. Nature Education 1(1), 127. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/gene-expression-regulates-cell-differentiation-931

Scally A., Dutheil J. Y., Hillier L. W., et al. (2012). Insights into hominid evolution from the gorilla genome sequence. Nature 483(7388): 169–75. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3303130/
 

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