Background: Although humans and chimpanzees have accumulated significant differences in a number of phenotypic traits since diverging from a common ancestor about six million years ago, their genomes are more than 98.5% identical at proteincoding loci. This modest degree of nucleotide divergence is not sufficient to explain the extensive phenotypic differences between the two species. It has been hypothesized that the genetic basis of the phenotypic differences lies at the level of gene regulation and is associated with the extensive insertion and deletion (INDEL) variation between the two species. To test the hypothesis that large INDELs (80 to 12,000 bp) may have contributed significantly to differences in gene regulation between the two species, we categorized human-chimpanzee INDEL variation mapping in or around genes and determined whether this variation is significantly correlated with previously determined differences in gene expression.
Results: Extensive, large INDEL variation exists between the human and chimpanzee genomes. This variation is primarily attributable to retrotransposon insertions within the human lineage. There is a significant correlation between differences in gene expression and large human-chimpanzee INDEL variation mapping in genes or in proximity to them.
Conclusions: The results presented herein are consistent with the hypothesis that
large INDELs, particularly those associated with retrotransposons, have played a significant role in human-chimpanzee regulatory evolution.