Y is it so? Monika Cechova on the Y Chromosome of Great Apes

Our final curator for this human-centric month is graduate student Monika Cechova (@biomonika), from the Department of Biology, Penn State University, Pennsylvania, USA.

Monika says her entry into biology was Serendipity.

Serendipity. I’ve always wanted to study computer science, but I fell in love with biology during high school class when we covered genetics and DNA. I was bio-michalovovacompletely fascinated by inheritance patterns (such as those in blood groups) and how you could predict things about the baby just by looking at the parents. Then I came across an article that described bioinformatics as “in between algorithms and life” and I was sold. However, I still didn’t think I could be a scientist. So it was a slow process and slow transformation that included meeting my mentors and debunking the myth that scientists are lonely geniuses in ivory towers.


I like to visualize data.

What motivates Monika?

I am enjoying DNA in my computer too much. I love the rush of being the first person in the world to learn some tiny significant detail about the world we live in. I really like that I can “see evolution” with my own eyes. For example when we use human DNA to learn more about great apes. You can read in a book that our DNA is 98-99% identical to that of chimpanzee, but it’s quite different experience to see those sequences on your own screen and analyze them.


I study Y chromosome in great apes, including human. We are told that girls have chromosomes XX and boys chromosomes XY. There is a very important gene on Y chromosome called SRY that triggers the male development. But Biology is never binary and there are so many exceptions to every rule! Y chromosome is very tiny compared to X chromosome, but still contains many genes that are important for male fertility and spermatogenesis. These genes are so variable! Perhaps you have 16 copies of this gene and perhaps you have 41. And we are still talking about humans here! Turns out, structure of chimpanzee Y chromosome is remarkably different from that of a human. We recently deciphered the Y chromosome of gorilla and found it to be in many ways more similar to human than to the chimpanzee. Y chromosome is of seminal importance for fertility, yet understudied because it’s so challenging to study! We need to combine various DNA sequencing technologies with innovative algorithms and plenty of statistics in order to explore it.


We study Y chromosome of great apes. Y chromosome is important for sex determination and male fertility. And great apes? No other non-human species is as closely related to us as great apes are! Chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, orangutans – we have so much in common and yet there is much we don’t know about their genetics. By learning about them we learn about us. What genes or parts of our genome make us human? Which genes or parts of genome might be non-essential because great apes live happily without them? How does the mating behavior of primates affects their genomes and especially Y chromosome?



And Monika’s ideal day off?

All you can eat brunch and sunny, warm day to spend outside, somewhere close to a water.

That sounds like a perfect weekend! Please welcome Monika to Real Scientists.

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