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It's our larger brains that set us apart from other primates. Back when we evolved from non-human primates, one specific gene came into play, which made our brains bigger while theirs stayed smaller.
Now a collaboration between researchers in Germany at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics and in Japan at the Central Institute for Experimental Animals, has used that same gene to grow a monkey brain to be bigger for the first time.
This study is not only incredible, it's also enlightening. It could replicate the moment in evolution where humans became separate from other primates. All due to one gene.
The results can be broken down into four sections. By inserting the gene:
The size of the monkeys' neocortex increased
Folding of the brain, similar to how a human brain is folded was induced
The relevant pro-generative cell type, which produces neurons, was increased
Specifically, it increased upper-layer neurons, which are the neurons that increase during evolution
This is crucial in order to maintain ethical boundaries. After about 100 days after the fetus had been growing, the international team unanimously agreed to remove the fetus through a C-section. Bringing a "new human-gene-influenced monkey into this world would step over the ethical line," said Huttner.
The left-hand fetus brain is normal, and the right-hand one is the enlargened human gene monkey brain, Source: Heide et al./MPI-CBG
The results worked as intended and the fetal monkey brains increased dramatically in size. The scientists felt it would be unethical to allow a monkey human hybrid to be born so terminated them after 100 days.