Gaining Insights into HIV-AIDS through the Genetics of Chimpanzees

 Left to right: Matthew W. Mitchell, Mary Katherine Gonder, Paul Sesink Clee
Left to Right: Matthew W. Mitchell, Mary Katherine Gonder, Paul Sesink Clee 
In UAlbany biologist Mary Katherine Gonder's hands, the tools of modern molecular genetics are providing new information about the history and lives of chimpanzees in areas of Cameroon and Nigeria, which encompass the Gulf of Guinea's Biodiversity region.

Her research focuses on understanding why Cameroon is an engine of diversification for chimpanzees and explaining the complex pattern of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIVcpz) infection in chimpanzees in the region. Her findings may offer insights into origins of HIV-AIDS, as well as inform conservation practices.

SIVcpz, the likely progenitor of HIV-1 groups M and N, is found in one of the two subspecies in the region, the central African chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes troglodytes). However, it does not appear to occur naturally in the other subspecies, the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (P. t. ellioti), although the sample tested to date remains small.

Through examinations of genetic data from wild chimpanzees and those living in sanctuaries in Africa, Gonder's team found that the Nigeria- Cameroon chimpanzee exhibits reproductive and genetic distinctiveness that has clearly separated it from other chimpanzee subspecies for the last several hundred thousand years, but that central and east African chimpanzees stopped exchanging genes with each other only relatively recently.