The research conducted should help provide answers to some of the fundamental questions in biology: Why do Homo sapiens live so much longer than closely related primates? What makes our species so special? “These are, of course, major questions,” says Khaitovich in his office, a bright room where he looks out of the window onto a street lined with sycamore trees. “And we are only a small research group.” He smiles a little apologetically, almost like someone who is trying to find the answer to an insoluble puzzle – and who knows that he can actually succeed.
With a slightly faltering Russian accent, Khaitovich explains his project, his hands describing wide arcs in the air. He gesticulates and laughs a lot, rolls his eyes, and never takes himself very seriously. But he is serious about his work. For almost four years, the Russian has been carrying out research at the Shanghai center, at the CAS-MPG Partner Institute for Computational Biology, which has been run jointly by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Plank Society since 2005.
During this time, Khaitovich has built up an international team of scientists. The researchers are young and ambitious, and many of them come from China. This is a group that does not shy away from difficult problems. Not even from problems that many great minds have wrestled with in vain in the past.
Such as the mysterious longevity of our own species. “Humans can live to be 100, in some cases even longer,” explains Philipp Khaitovich. “In contrast, rhesus monkeys, for instance, live to at most 40 years, even with the best medical care.” Humans do differ, even from their closest living relatives, chimpanzees, simply in development of their intellectual capabilities. Physical development is also dissimilar in the two species. For example, sexual maturity in female chimpanzees begins at the age of 8 or 9 years, whereas in Homo sapiens it is more like 13 or 14.
Why there is such a dramatic difference in the development of man and apes has long been the subject of research. “For a very long time, scientists have been puzzling over this question, including big names like Konrad Lorenz and Stephen Jay Gould,” says Khaitovich. “Every conceivable hypothesis has already been considered.”
There is, for example, the idea of neoteny. According to this theory, which has been debated over and over again since the beginning of the 19th century, human development is considerably delayed compared to any other primates.
The basic idea is that the adult human, with its sparse hair development, on the outside resembles the small face and big head of a baby monkey. At the same time, the human brain retains its plasticity longer, which might explain the special cognitive capabilities of our species. Up to now, however, such theories have been nothing more than just that – theories – because they cannot be validated, as such. It was only a few years ago that rapid technological development made it possible to put them to the test.
In the 1990s, when Philipp Khaitovich was studying molecular biology at the Moscow State University, this kind of research had not yet even been thought of. At that time, it took several years just to investigate the structure and function of a protein. After studying in Moscow, he went to Chicago to do his doctorate, then on to Germany where he worked at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.
There, in the group headed by Swedish evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo, he gained significant impetus for his later work. “Svante is a true pioneer. He was one of the first to use new genetic methods to investigate human evolution,” says Khaitovich. “My current subject is based largely on his ideas.”