The BPRC research for comparative genetics is investigating similarities and differences between the genes of different primate species (humans, apes, and monkeys). Genes are present in every cell of the body, and are made of DNA. Each gene contains the code to make one protein. Proteins in turn control the biochemical processes, and actually perform all the work in the body.
The genes of different species differ from each other. Even within one species, including humans, the genes may show variation. These variable genes are called polymorphic (many forms): for example, the genes that control hair color. Genes are inherited, leading to the characteristics shared by parents and their children.
The immune system
The genetics research at BPRC is focused on genes that control the immune responses. The immune system plays an important role in contagious diseases, autoimmune disorders, and transplantation responses, all of which are major areas of investigation at the BPRC.
Special emphasis is placed on studies involving the polymorphic genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), because the proteins belonging to this complex play a pivotal role in the recognition of non-self substances. Furthermore, these proteins play a role in the post-transplant rejection of an organ, in cases in which the donor and the recipient have different MHC genes.
In the lab
For gene-related investigations, the drawing of one blood sample per animal is sufficient, and the DNA is easily isolated from this sample. Moreover, it is possible to process the white blood cells so that they continue to proliferate in a culture flask. In this way, there is always a source for another round of DNA isolation, should the animal used originally no longer be available.
In this “alignment” the base sequences of a gene in 10 different animals are compared.
DNA is composed of four chemical components, and the sequence of these components, or bases, within a gene may vary among animals. A gene of interest can be amplified using specialized techniques. The base sequence within this gene is determined with state-of-the-art equipment, and the information becomes available in a four-letter code.
Aim of genetic research
The proteins that are encoded by the polymorphic MHC genes may determine whether an individual is susceptible or resistant to a particular disease. The MHC typing allows the careful selection of animals for customized experiments.
To ensure the quality of the primate breeding colonies at the BPRC, the inheritance of MHC genes in the animals is monitored, and in this way inbreeding is avoided.
The genetic information is shared with other research institutes via a database http://www.ebi.ac.uk/ipd/mhc/nhp/ of which BPRC employees are the curators. Furthermore, DNA and cell lines are made available for other institutes via the EURPRIM netwerk.