According to researchers at the Duke University Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, when it comes to coping with malaria, baboons and humans have similar stories to tell.
The scientists found that variation in the same gene in humans and baboons produces the same kind of disease resistance.
Led by Gregory Wray, Susan Alberts and Jenny Tung, the study drew on Alberts' longtime study of the yellow baboons in Kenya's Amboseli National Park to examine the baboons' susceptibility to a malaria-like parasite.
They then delved into the genetic basis for differences in the baboons' vulnerability to infection.
After a fieldwork of over three summers in the East African savannah, the researchers discovered that 60 percent of the Amboseli baboons were infected with the malaria-like parasite.
The researchers found that variation in precisely the same regulatory gene also influences baboons' chances of getting sick, by ratcheting their susceptibility to another, closely related parasite up or down.
The researchers observed that almost 60 percent of the Amboseli baboons were infected with the malaria-like parasite known as Hepatocystis.
"We had no idea so many of them were carrying this parasite," Nature quoted Alberts as saying.
The newfound parallels between baboons and humans bring the long history of conflict between parasite and host into high relief.
"These researchers have made a very significant discovery that can only come from this kind of longterm study. It's a great example of seeing the connections between evolutionary genomics and disease susceptibility and resistance," said Jean Turnquist, NSF program officer.
The findings were published in the latest online edition of the journal Nature.