Uplift Gene May Have Been Discovered

Thursday, November 15, 2012

uplift gene may have been discovered
Scientists say a gene, miR-941, appears to have played a crucial role in human brain development and may shed light on how we learned to use tools and language. They believe it is the first time that a new gene - carried only by humans and not by apes - has been shown to have a specific function within the human body.  The discovery may turn out to be a key 'uplift' development.
An international team of scientists have discovered a new gene that helps explain how humans evolved from apes.

The results, published in Nature Communications, showed that the gene - miR-941 - is unique to humans.

Scientists say the gene appears to have played a crucial role in human brain development and may shed light on how we learned to use tools and language.

The team at the University of Edinburgh, working with scientists in Germany and China, compared the human genome to 11 other species of mammals, including chimpanzees, gorillas, mouse and rat, to find the differences between them.

The researchers say that it emerged between six and one million years ago, after humans had evolved from apes. The gene is highly active in two areas of the brain that control our decision making and language abilities.

The study suggests it could have a role in the advanced brain functions that make us human.

2001 A Space Odyssey - Monolith
The fact that the gene, miR-941 seems to have arisen spontaneously may suggest that Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick were not too far off the mark.  Image Source: MGM
It is known that most differences between species occur as a result of changes to existing genes, or the duplication and deletion of genes. But scientists say this gene emerged fully functional out of non-coding genetic material, previously termed “junk DNA”, in a startlingly brief interval of evolutionary time.

Until now, it has been remarkably difficult to see this process in action. Researcher Dr Martin Taylor, who led the study at the Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, said the results were fascinating. This new molecule sprang from nowhere at a time when our species was undergoing dramatic changes: living longer, walking upright, learning how to use tools and how to communicate.

The gene may make it possible to uplift great apes and other species via genetic engineering.  Uplift is a concept discussed by David Brin in the books, Brightness Reef, Startide Rising and The Uplift War, where lower order species are raised to human levels in intelligence and capability.  The concept can be traced to H. G. Wells' novel The Island of Doctor Moreau in which a scientist transforms animals into horrifying parodies of men through surgery and psychological torment.

Planet of the Apes - uplift
Could uplifted chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans join humanity in the future? Image Source: 20th Century Fox 

Among transhumanists, uplift is a popular idea and was recently discussed on Singularity Weblog in depth by bioethicist James Hughes.  He also was interviewed by George Dvorky from i09 for an in-depth piece on uplift.  Hughes believes that research on augmenting the intelligence of primates is one area in which they might actually be the direct beneficiaries of animal research. Over time, argues Hughes, animal uplift experiments could be of great benefit to the individual animals involved — and even their entire species.

Undoubtedly, miR-941 is probably not the sole reason humans are different from apes and other creatures, however we are continuously making progress in our understanding of these biological underpinnings. Research in pharmacology, genetics, and cybernetics hold huge promise for the further development of "uplift" technologies. Applying these bio-tweaks to other animals might make them more like us. Should we around enhance the brains of other living creatures? Do we have the right? Will this change our definition of what it is to be human?

SOURCE  University of Edinburgh

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