Kamilah lives in San Diego, California, is 35 years old, weighs 136 kilograms and has a dark fur coat covering her skin. And she is the first gorilla to have its full genome sequenced.
Researchers have already sequenced the genomes of humans, chimpanzees and orang-utans. Understanding these genetic catalogues, from our closest living relatives, can reveal much about our evolutionary path — such as when we diverged from our primate cousins and what makes humans different from apes.
After chimps, gorillas are the closest living relative of humans. "When humans and chimps diverged it wasn't long after gorillas had separated from the same lineage," says Aylwyn Scally, whose team at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, led the sequencing effort.
"Having additional lineages puts human evolution into important perspective," says Wolfgang Enard, who works on human evolutionary genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, but was not involved in the study.
The team also compared Kamilah's genome with partial sequences for three other gorillas — two from the same sub-species as Kamilah, the western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and one eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri).
Overall, the data suggest that gorillas split from their common ancestor with humans and chimps about 10 million years ago, and that chimps and humans split from each other about 4 million years after that. This helps to clear up the evolutionary conundrum of the three types of great ape. "For a long time there was a discordance between the fossil evidence and genetic estimates, in the sense that genetic estimates came up with speciation times that were more recent," says Scally.
Genomics means cutting-edge technology. It started with the reading of the 3,000 million letters which forms the human genome ten years ago. This developement opened a new world of possibilities and oportunities for the biological, medical and evolutionary sciences.
A decade of exponential technological progress has dramatically reduced the cost of whole genome sequencing, removing the main restriction for non-model species. The giant panda genome was assembled in 2010 and here's a current proporsal to sequence more than 10.000 species to study vertebrate evolution.