Newly-funded research will investigate how natural selection has shaped the immune system of wild baboons
Viruses and bacteria not only make us sick, but have also played an important role in shaping primate evolution. Because pathogens are so large in number and replicate so quickly, we know that the immune system has had to adapt very fast to stay on a level playing field.
Still, many open questions about our evolutionary history with pathogens remain. For example, what kinds of disease-causing microbes have been more important—viruses or bacteria? What changes have occurred in primate genomes to deal with these threats? Do genetic differences in immune genes influence traits like wound-healing in primates living today?
Those are some of the questions that Jordan Anderson, Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Jenny Tung's lab, aims at answering with his newly-funded Leakey Foundation grant, focusing on the immune system of a closely related primate: wild baboons in Kenya.
Baboons are large, terrestrial primates that live in savanna grasslands, in parts of the world where humans also evolved. Anderson's research will investigate how two baboon species, who last shared a common ancestor over than 1 million years ago, have evolved to combat bacterial and viral pathogens.
By investigating how natural selection has shaped the immune system in the past, and testing how it might still act in the present, Anderson's research will show how field studies of wild primates can provide unique insight into human evolution.
The Leakey Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to increasing scientific knowledge, education, and public understanding of human origins, evolution, behavior, and survival. Every year they provide grants to a cohort of scientists whose research sheds light on the evolutionary origins of humans.
Anderson's proposal was selected among a pool of over 100 applicants, making this an achievement well worth celebrating.