What makes us human: revisiting an age-old question in the genomic era
Nitzan Mekel-Bobrov and Bruce T Lahn
Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Department of Human Genetics and Committee on Genetics, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA
In 1970, Karl Pribram took on the immense challenge of asking the question, what makes us human? Nearly four decades later, the most significant finding has been the undeniable realization of how incredibly subtle and fine-scaled the unique biological features of our species must be. The recent explosion in the availability of large-scale sequence data, however, and the consequent emergence of comparative genomics, are rapidly transforming the study of human evolution. The field of comparative genomics is allowing us to reach unparalleled resolution, reframing our questions in reference to DNA sequence – the very unit that evolution operates on. But like any reductionist approach, it comes at a price. Comparative genomics may provide the necessary resolution for identifying rare DNA sequence differences in a vast sea of conservation, but ultimately we will have to face the challenge of figuring out how DNA sequence divergence translates into phenotypic divergence. Our goal here is to provide a brief outline of the major findings made in the study of human brain evolution since the Pribram lecture, focusing specifically on the field of comparative genomics. We then discuss the broader implications of these findings and the future challenges that are in store.
Journal of Biomedical Discovery and Collaboration 2006, 1:18. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0).