Genes help snub-nosed monkeys live the high life

black snub-nosed monkey

Researchers have discovered genetic differences in black, or Yunnan, snub-nosed monkeys that help them survive low-oxygen conditions at high altitude.

Ming Li

A few genes may have put black snub-nosed monkeys on top of the world.

Black, or Yunnan, snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus bieti) live in high-altitude forests on a small slice of the Tibetan plateau. At 3,400 to 4,600 meters above sea level, the monkeys reside at higher elevations than any other nonhuman primate.

A genetic study of DNA from four of the five remaining species of snub-nosed monkeys in Asia has found 19 gene variations in black snub-nosed monkeys that might be responsible for their high life. One of those genes, called ADAM9, is more active in cancer cells in low-oxygen conditions. Tibetan yaks and chickens also have their own versions of the gene. The results suggest that natural selection favored changes to ADAM9 because they help snub-nosed monkeys and other animals survive low-oxygen environments.

Tibetan people have other adaptations to high altitudes, including one inherited from extinct human relatives called Denisovans.

The study also found that snub-nosed monkeys are less genetically diverse than humans or great apes, largely because of their small population sizes, researchers report August 23 in Molecular Biology and Evolution

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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