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Close to human: Scientists decipher the origin of tarsiers

Scientists of Münster Univerity have finally resolved the controversial question of the phylogenetic decent and evolutionary history of Ghost Monkeys / Results published online in "Nature Scientific Reports"

Tarsiers are indigenous to the islands of Southeast Asia, but visitors to the zoo should also be familiar with these charming monkeys with their conspicuously big eyes. A meeting with them in the monkey house is practically a visit with our own relatives, a new study now shows.

For decades, we remained in the dark regarding the evolutionary origin of the tarsiers, but now a new scientific study has brought light into this dark corner of our knowledge; the tarsiers, or Ghost Monkeys, are indisputably much more closely related to humans and other higher primates than previously imagined. The research group of Dr. Jürgen Schmitz in the Institute of Experimental Pathology at the University of Münster in Germany, funded by the German Science Foundation (DFG), has finally resolved the controversial question of the phylogenetic decent and evolutionary history of this branch of higher primates. The results of their scientific analyses have just been published online in the journal "Nature Scientific Reports".

The tarsiers were long thought to represent the very first branching on the evolutionary tree of primates, and thus more distantly related to humans and other higher primates. But this view was already shaken in 2001, when Dr. Jürgen Schmitz and his colleagues identified 50-million-year-old so called ‘Jumping genes’ in the current genomes of tarsiers. “These jumping genes are contemporary, quasi fossilized genomic witnesses of tarsiers much closer relationship to humans than to other prosimians,” explained Schmitz. Unfortunately, over the next twelve years, others’ analyses of tarsier DNA sequences could not definitively confirm their placement on this branch of the evolutionary tree of primates – until now.

In a much more extensive analysis of ancient jumping genes in primates, Schmitz and his research group in Münster, along with others from the Genome Institute of Washington, have finally found clear evidence that the tarsiers are indeed much more closely related to humans than previously thought. Dr. Gennady Churakov and Gerrit Hartig, the two bioinformatics scientists who screened and analyzed the genomes of Tarsius and other related primate species, provided the major contribution to this evidence. In describing their bioinformatics approach, Dr. Churakov explained, “For the first time, we were able to examine the entire genome of the tarsiers and compare it with those of many representatives of other higher primates and prosimians.” Using complex computer algorithms, the team was able to identify 104 50-million-year-old, jumping genes in Tarsius that are identical with ones in human, unequivocally indicating that they both inherited them from a common ancestor. Thus, one of the most controversial, unresolved questions of primate evolution is now answered. “For gene and genome comparisons, Tarsius is decidedly the closest reference to higher primates,” exclaimed Prof. Jürgen Brosius, head of the Institute of Experimental Pathology, obviously excited with the new results from his institute.


Dr. Thomas Bauer
Dekanat der Medizinischen Fakultät
der Westfälischen Wilhelms-Universität Münster
Ressort Presse & Public Relations
Phone: +49 (0) 251 - 83 58 93 7


Hartig, G., Churakov, G., Warren, W. C., Brosius, J., Makalowski, W., Schmitz, J. (2013) Retrophylogenomics place tarsiers on the evolutionary branch of anthropoids.

Dr. Christina Heimken | idw
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