By Keerthi Chandrashekar / ( | First Posted: Jul 04, 2013 09:11 AM EDT

(Photo : Reuters)

A group of 75 scientists from around the world have created a comprehensive genetic history of great apes over the last 15 million years, giving researchers a clearer look at genetic variation among some of our closest relatives.

"The research provided us the deepest survey to date of great ape genetic diversity with evolutionary insights into the divergence and emergence of great-ape species," said Evan Eichler, the University of Washington professor who led the research along with Peter H. Sudmant, also from the University of Washington.

Gathering genetic material from wild great apes can be rather difficult, however, with the aid of conservationists, the scientists were able to genetically analyze 79 wild and captive-born great apes. The sample group included all six great ape species: chimpanzees, bonobos, Sumatran orangutans, Bornean orangutans, eastern gorillas, and western lowland gorillas. Seven subspecies and nine human genomes were also included.

"Gathering this data is critical to understanding differences between great ape species, and separating aspects of the genetic code that distinguish humans from other primates," said Sudmant. "Because the way we think, communicate and act is what makes us distinctively human, we are specifically looking for the genetic differences between humans and other great apes that might confer these traits."

By understanding the genetic history of great apes, the team is hoping to shed more light on how primates react to factors such as climate change, population growth, and natural selection, among other things. Doing so can help medical experts better grasp diseases that afflict humans. In fact, another study published in the journal Genome Research carried out by a different group was able to find a chimpanzee equivalent of Smith-Magenis syndrome, a degenerative human mental disease.

Of course, there's always the conservation angle, and by better understanding what makes these great apes tick, conservationists can better tailor their efforts.

"If you look at a chimpanzee or a gorilla, those guys will look right back at you," Sudmant said. "They act just like us. We need to find ways to protect these precious species from extinction."

You can read the full published study detailing the findings in the journal Nature.

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