It turns out we are closer cousins to the worm than previously thought. A consortium of more than 200 biologists, geneticists and biomedical informaticists have just published three studies where they compared the genome of humans with the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) and the roundworm (Caenorhabditis elegans), and it turns out all three organisms are remarkably similar at the basic genetic level.

Functional Genes

Although the human genome is tremendously more complex (10 times larger), the study shows that evolutionary mechanisms used similar processes to shape large functional sections of the genomes shared by the three species. Of note, all three species have similar genes that code for proteins and also use the same genetic mechanisms for turning the genes on and off.

Statement from lead author

“It is remarkable to find these similarities across a half billion years,” explained Mark Gerstein, the Albert L. Williams Professor of Biomedical Informatics at Yale and lead author of one of the Nature papers. “It also illustrates how studying model organisms can help us to annotate the human genome.”

Importance of the functional genes study

Sarah Elgin, professor of biology at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri highlights that some of the genes associated with cancers and other inherited diseases exist within the genome of these two insects. She also says that the discovery of similarities between species is extremely useful in terms of further research into epigenetic therapy.

Epigenes (sometimes called functional genes) act as controls which determine whether specific genes are “on” or “off” within the organism at any given time. The various factors that impact the actions of functional genes are age and environmental stresses, such as exposure to pollution, cigarette smoke or alcohol.

Furthermore, the pharmaceutical industry holds a large stake in the development of drugs which can fix damaged epigenes. The interest in finding cures for various forms of cancer has led to the research into 78 different epigenetic therapy drugs.

Other targets of interest for pharmaceutical companies include diabetes and Alzheimer’s. An in-depth understanding of the relationship between fruit flies, roundworms, and human beings allows for easier and expedited preclinical trials for new drugs, which could significantly shorten the timeline to approval for some new drugs in the future.