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Am J Hum Biol. 2011 Jan-Feb;23(1):53-64. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.21132.

Comparative genetic approaches to the evolution of human brain and behavior.

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New England Primate Research Center, Harvard Medical School, Southborough, Massachusetts, USA.


With advances in genomic technologies, the amount of genetic data available to scientists today is vast. Genomes are now available or planned for 14 different primate species and complete resequencing of numerous human individuals from numerous populations is underway. Moreover, high-throughput deep sequencing is quickly making whole genome efforts within the reach of single laboratories allowing for unprecedented studies. Comparative genetic approaches to the identification of the underlying basis of human brain, behavior, and cognitive ability are moving to the forefront. Two approaches predominate: inter-species divergence comparisons and intra-species polymorphism studies. These methodological differences are useful for different time scales of evolution and necessarily focus on different evolutionary events in the history of primate and hominin evolution. Inter-species divergence is more useful in studying large scale primate, or hominoid, evolution whereas intra-species polymorphism can be more illuminating of recent hominin evolution. These differences in methodological utility also extend to studies of differing genetic substrates; current divergence studies focus primarily on protein evolution whereas polymorphism studies are substrate ambivalent. Some of the issues inherent in these studies can be ameliorated by current sequencing capabilities whereas others remain intractable. New avenues are also being opened that allow for the incorporation of novel substrates and approaches. In the post-genomic era, the study of human evolution, specifically as it relates to the brain, is becoming more complete focusing increasingly on the totality of the system and better conceptualizing the entirety of the genetic changes that have lead to the human phenotype today.

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