Ham the Astrochimp helped medical researchers determine that humans could… (NASA )
On Thursday, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said he would follow the advice of the Institute of Medicine and limit the number and types of biomedical research experiments that involve chimpanzees. Ultimately, he said, the number of studies that use the animals would fall from 37 to about 20 or fewer.
Chimpanzees were first recruited for use in biomedical research because they share all but 200,000 of the 3 billion chemical letters that make up humanDNA. They share many traits with humans, including complex social structures, a sense of self-awareness, the ability to love and the ability to feel stress.
But as Melissa Healy explained, “powerful computers, new lab techniques and genetic engineering have steadily reduced the need to use chimpanzees as human stand-ins. Meanwhile, progress in understanding other diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, has underscored that while chimps and humans share much DNA, not all diseases behave the same in Pan troglodytes as they do in Homo sapiens.”
Now, as the NIH and chimpanzees prepare for a new chapter in their relationship, let’s pause to remember some of the chimps who made great contributions to research.
Ham the Astrochimp: A native of Cameroon, Ham, on Jan. 31, 1961, became the first chimp launched into space. His name is short for Holloman Aerospace Medical Center, where he was trained for his nearly 17-minute suborbital flight. Ham learned to perform tasks during his test flight, and his pace was only slightly slower than it was on Earth. This proved that it would be possible for humans to work in space. Inadvertently, Ham also proved the value of pressurized space suits – his saved his life after the cabin pressure inside his space capsule unexpectedly dropped about two minutes into the flight, according to this account from NASA. In the end, all he suffered was a bruised nose. For more on Ham, including some really adorable photos, check out this appreciation from Life magazine.
Nim Chimpsky:Nim was raised in a human household in New York City in the 1970s. The gambit was part of an experiment by a Columbia University psychologist who wanted to find out whether a chimp could learn to communicate using American Sign Language. The psychologist concluded that although Nim learned about 125 signs, he didn’t really “speak” like a human because he mostly copied signs made by his handlers instead of offering them up himself, according to this NPR report. He spent a brief period in a medical lab for tuberculosis studies before being moved to an animal sanctuary. A documentary about Nim, called “Project Nim,” came out this year.
Clint: This chimpanzee donated a sample of his DNA to be the reference genomefor his entire species. The chimp genome was published in 2005, and it quickly became a key tool for researchers studying human genetics – by comparing the DNA of chimps and people, scientists hope to figure out which small changes in evolutionary history are responsible for the key traits that make humans different from all other animals.
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