The first project to sequence whole genomes from mountain gorillas has given scientists and conservationists new insight into the impact of population decline on these critically endangered apes. While mountain gorillas are extensively inbred and at risk of extinction, research published in the April 10, 2015 issue of Science finds more to be optimistic about in their genomes than expected. "Mountain gorillas are among the most intensively studied primates in the wild, but this is the first in-depth, whole-genome analysis," says Dr. Chris Tyler-Smith, corresponding author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. "Three years on from sequencing the gorilla reference genome, we can now compare the genomes of all gorilla populations, including the critically endangered mountain gorilla, and begin to understand their similarities and differences, and the genetic impact of inbreeding." The number of mountain gorillas living in the Virunga volcanic mountain range on the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo plummeted to approximately 253 in 1981 as a result of habitat destruction and hunting. Since then, conservation efforts led by the Rwanda Development Board and conservation organizations like the Gorilla Doctors (a partnership between the non-profit Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project and the University of California at Davis Wildlife Health Center), and supported by tourists keen to see the gorillas made famous by late primatologist Dian Fossey, have bolstered numbers to approximately 480 among the Virunga population.
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