Scientists Sequence Genome of White-Faced Capuchin

by johnsmith

A team of researchers from the United Kingdom and Canada has sequenced the genome of the white-faced capuchin (Cebus imitator), a medium-sized New World monkey of the family Cebidae.

The white-faced capuchin (Cebus imitator) in Panama. Image credit: Charles J. Sharp, Sharp Photography, / CC BY-SA 4.0.

The white-faced capuchin (Cebus imitator) in Panama. Image credit: Charles J. Sharp, Sharp Photography, / CC BY-SA 4.0.

White-faced capuchin monkeys are widely distributed across Central and South America.

They are inventive and extractive foragers, known for their sensorimotor intelligence. Like great apes, they have diverse diets, consume and seek out high-energy resources, engage in complex extractive foraging techniques to consume difficult-to-access invertebrates and nuts.

These monkeys have among the largest relative brain size of any monkey and a lifespan that exceeds 50 years in captivity, despite their small (3 to 5 kg) body size.

To explore the evolution of these traits, University of Liverpool’s Professor Joao Pedro De Magalhaes and colleagues annotated a reference assembly for this species.

“Capuchins have the largest relative brain size of any monkey and can live past the age of 50, despite their small size, but their genetic underpinnings had remained unexplored until now,” he said.

The researchers used a new technique to efficiently isolate primate DNA from their feces.

“This is a major breakthrough because the typical way to extract DNA from feces results in about 95-99% of the DNA coming from gut microbes and food items,” said Dr. Joseph Orkin, a researcher at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra-CSIC.

Through a comparative genomics approach spanning a wide diversity of mammals, the scientists identified genes under evolutionary selection associated with longevity and brain development.

“We found signatures of positive selection on genes underlying both traits, which helps us to better understand how such traits evolve,” said Dr. Amanda Melin, a researcher at the University of Calgary.

“In addition, we found evidence of genetic adaptation to drought and seasonal environments by looking at populations of capuchins from a rainforest and a seasonal dry forest.”

The authors also identified genes associated with DNA damage response, metabolism, cell cycle, and insulin signaling.

“Of course, because aging-related genes often play multiple roles it is impossible to be sure whether selection in these genes is related to ageing or to other life-history traits, like growth rates and developmental times, that in turn correlate with longevity,” Professor De Magalhaes said.

“Although we should be cautious about the biological significance of our findings, it is tempting to speculate that, like in other species, changes to specific aging-related genes or pathways, could contribute to the longevity of capuchins.”

The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Joseph D. Orkin et al. 2021. The genomics of ecological flexibility, large brains, and long lives in capuchin monkeys revealed with fecalFACS. PNAS 118 (7): e2010632118; doi: 10.1073/pnas.2010632118

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