A new gene, known as miR-941, has been identified which gives insight into how humans evolved from chimpanzees.

This finding was published in Nature Communications, came from a team at the University of Edinburgh, and was funded by National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Medical Research Council. It brings us closer to answering one of science’s leading questions: What makes the human body different from other mammals?

The scientists in the new study, led by Dr. Martin Taylor at the Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, revealed that miR-941 had an important part in the development of the human brain and can even help explain how we acquire language and learn to use tools.

This new gene is the first known gene to be found in humans and not in apes. According to the team, it appears to have a certain purpose in the human body.

The researchers analyzed 11 different species of mammals, such as gorillas, chimpanzees, rats and mice, and then compared them to the human genome in order to look for variations.

The results demonstrated that the miR-941 gene is carried only by humans and that it appeared after humans evolved from apes, anywhere between 6 and 1 million years ago.

The gene is especially operative in 2 parts of the brain in charge of language skills and decision making. The research implies that it may play an important part in the higher brain functions responsible for making humans unique.

Scientists have been aware that the outcome of alterations to genes that exist, or deleting and duplicating genes, is what makes species different from each other.

However, researchers claim this gene came out of junk DNA, and fully functional too. Junk DNA refers to non-coding genetic material. It occurred surprisingly fast, in evolutionary terms. Nobody has been able to see this process in action properly, until now.

Dr. Taylor explained why the finding is significant:

“As a species, humans are wonderfully inventive – we are socially and technologically evolving all the time. But this research shows that we are innovating at a genetic level too. This new molecule sprang from nowhere at a time when our species was undergoing dramatic changes: living longer, walking upright, learning how to use tools and how to communicate. We’re now hopeful that we will find more new genes that help show what makes us human.”

Written by Sarah Glynn