Teen who studied monkey DNA wins top science honors

Researching monkey's DNA, senior developed theory of how traits developed during evolution. Work "offers new insights," MIT prof says.

It's not your average teenager who comes home from school everyday to download the genetic codes of an African monkey, but that's exactly what one Boston teenager did, reports The Boston Globe.

Arjun Ramamurti, a senior at Lexington High School, is one focused teenager. For three years he's been working on solving the evolutionary path of the 15-pound, tree-dwelling, African guenon monkey. He isolated 11,500 base pairs of DNA code, divided their physical characteristics up into 11 categories, and for all his efforts is being honored as the New England regional winner of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology in New York.

"This is the highest honor anybody can remember at the Lexington high school science department," said Susan Offner, the teacher who launched Ramamurti on his quest three years ago. "We are absolutely thrilled for him."

Following a natural curiosity, Ramamurti says he didn't pursue the challenge for any reward.

"Biology has always been my favorite subject, and I just stuck with it," he said. "It just kind of built up and took on a life of its own."

Cracking the genetic code of the Guenon monkeys has been difficult because they carry extra DNA that clouds their evolution. Ramamurti compared the monkey's DNA — which he accessed from the Internet — with physical and behavioral characteristics of the animals taken from different locations.

Through painstaking research and data collection, Ramamurti posed an evolutionary path more advanced and detailed than anything previously considered.

"His research offers new insights into how traits develop in primates -- and even humans -- during evolution," said Mary-Lou Pardue, a professor of biology at MIT and a judge at the regional competition.

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