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Open Access Research article

Human functional genetic studies are biased against the medically most relevant primate-specific genes

Lili Hao12, Xiaomeng Ge1, Haolei Wan1, Songnian Hu1, Martin J Lercher3, Jun Yu1* and Wei-Hua Chen4*

Author Affiliations

1 CAS Key Laboratory of Genome Sciences and Information, Beijing Institute of Genomics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, 100029 Beijing, China

2 Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, 100049 Beijing, China

3 Bioinformatics group, Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf, 40225, Germany

4 European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Meyerhofstrasse 1, 69117 Heidelberg, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:316  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-316

Published: 20 October 2010

Abstract

Background

Many functional, structural and evolutionary features of human genes have been observed to correlate with expression breadth and/or gene age. Here, we systematically explore these correlations.

Results

Gene age and expression breadth are strongly correlated, but contribute independently to the variation of functional, structural and evolutionary features, even when we take account of variation in mRNA expression level. Human genes without orthologs in distant species ('young' genes) tend to be tissue-specific in their expression. As computational inference of gene function often relies on the existence of homologs in other species, and experimental characterization is facilitated by broad and high expression, young, tissue-specific human genes are often the least characterized. At the same time, young genes are most likely to be medically relevant.

Conclusions

Our results indicate that functional characterization of human genes is biased against young, tissue-specific genes that are mostly medically relevant. The biases should not be taken lightly because they may pose serious obstacles to our understanding of the molecular basis of human diseases. Future studies should thus be designed to specifically explore the properties of primate-specific genes.