Research Focus

Our group studies the evolution of primates. We are especially interested in the molecular forces that shape phenotypic differences between primate species. While the genomic information of several primate species is available, we are still far from translating genomic differences into specific phenotypic effects. In recent years we have broadened our taxonomic scope including rodents, birds, reptiles, insects and molluscs to determine general factors of genetic and species biodiversity and joined the ERGA (European Reference Genome Atlas) community.

Our main focus is on the impact of transcription factors (TFs) and non-coding RNAs on differences in transcriptomes, gene regulatory networks, and ultimately the phenotype. TFs are proteins that form gene regulatory networks to regulate the expression of all genes. TFs typically bind to specific DNA sequence motives to control the expression of a few to many other genes. Therefore, evolutionary changes in TFs can potentially have large impacts on the phenotype of a species. Indeed, we demonstrated that some TF genes show significantly more sequence and expression differences between humans and chimpanzees than other types of genes. Intriguingly, some of these fast evolving TFs seem to play a role in brain and cognitive functions.

We are using experimental as well as computational approaches to investigate species evolution. Here you can read more about our projects related to the molecular evolution of primates and to biodiversity genomics.

To learn more about our own species we also have to understand the biology of our closest living relatives. Unfortunately, this opportunity might be lost in the near future. With the expansion of the human species in the last ~10.000 years came along a dramatic reduction in the population size of non-human primates. Presently, all great apes and many primates are endangered (IUCN 2008 Red List of Threatened Species). Main causes are the destruction of their remaining habitats in Central Africa and Asia as well as poaching, and the threat of introduced viruses in the primate communities.

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