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Humans and chimpanzees have DNA that's remarkably similar. Researchers say the genetic codes are about 95 percent identical. But it's the small part that's different that scientists really care about. In other words, they want to figure out what makes humans special, and NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports scientists have found one chunk of DNA that looks like it's important for building our unique brains.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Humans have much bigger brains than chimps.
DEBRA SILVER: You know, there are estimates of anywhere from two to four times as big.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Debra Silver is a biologist who studies brain development at Duke University Medical School.
SILVER: In addition to having bigger brains, we have more neurons and we have more connections between these neurons.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Silver wants to know what gives us those big brains and ultimately, what's the genetic basis for humans' capacity for logic, abstract thought, language? That's why she and some colleagues recently started looking at pieces of DNA that differ markedly between chimps and humans.
SILVER: And we went through those and picked out ones that seem to be likely to be regulating gene activity in a developing brain.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: One stretch of DNA looked promising because it was near a gene that's known to be involved in brain development. The researchers took the chimp version of this DNA and put it into mouse embryos. They took other mouse embryos and put in the human version. And the result was surprising - fetal mice with the human DNA had brains that were noticeably larger, about 12 percent bigger.
SILVER: We were really excited when we saw the bigger brains.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Silver says they now want to know if the mice will behave differently in adulthood. She and her colleagues describe these initial results in the journal Current Biology.
SILVER: We think this is really the tip of the iceberg and it's likely to be the one of many DNA regions that's critical for controlling how the human brain develops, and also explaining why our brains are bigger.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This brain-boosting bit of DNA seemed to turn on genes that made more neurons. And interestingly, it's found in a part of the genetic code that was once called junk DNA because scientists used to think it served no purpose. Studies like this show junk DNA is actually really important, but, it's still pretty mysterious.
KATIE POLLARD: We have very little scientific information about the actual functions of those regions.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Katie Pollard studies human and chimp DNA at the University of California San Francisco. She says most of the genetic differences between humans and chimps are actually found in the junk DNA.
POLLARD: While it's now pretty easy to find the genetic differences, it's very challenging to figure out exactly whether those differences made a change in a trait and why. And this study is helping to try to bridge that gap.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Eventually, work like this could generate a list of DNA sequences that give a brain characteristically human capabilities. That could be important for understanding what goes wrong in brain diseases. But, what if someone used that information to try to make the brains of a nonhuman species more like us? Could they make super-chimps that would one day mock us, like in the "Planet Of The Apes?"
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PLANET OF THE APES")
MAURICE EVANS: (As Dr. Zaius) Man has no understanding. He can be taught a few simple tricks, nothing more.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Ruth Faden is a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University. She's not too worried about that scenario.
RUTH FADEN: One can never say never, but I think it's a pretty long-shot, far-fetched type concern.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says an experiment like this recent is not going to create mice that can talk and think like people. But it could be more ethically worrisome to try to genetically enhance the brains of nonhuman primates or other intelligent animals, like pigs. Faden says that's something our own species might prefer to avoid.
FADEN: The prospect of sort of tearing down the barriers between humans and other nonhuman species in ways that really threaten our sense of ourselves as special is disturbing.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Any possibility like that would be far, far in the future. Still, Faden says, it's not too soon to start thinking about it. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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