Visitors to our house are likely to quickly notice a recurrent theme in the decor, starting with a garden ornament and continuing throughout the house. Pictures, books, dog toys -- even a trash can, with a common two-color scheme. Or, for those who think that way, two non-colors. An inspection of The Next Generation's quarters will reveal the mother lode: melanoleuca run amok. The house bears a bi-color motif: a motif of bi-color bears. Yes, we pander to pandas!
It is therefore with interest to see (thanks to GenomeWeb!) an item from Reuters that the Chinese government is funding a project to sequence the panda genome prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympiad. Wild pandas are found only in China and are considered a national symbol & treasure.
A panda genome should be of great interest to evolutionary biologists, as the panda is a bit of an odd bear. Indeed, until the arrival of molecular systematics its affinity for bears was unclear, with alternate groupings putting them on their own or with raccoons along with red pandas (which are not bears). With the lag time in populating libraries and such, the doubt about their taxonomy persists in many schools and many minds: TNG has already been tutored to defend the ursinity of Ailuropoda with the DNA argument. Pandas have adopted a nearly vegetarian lifestyle, consuming mostly bamboo -- and their digestive tracts probably haven't quite caught up to that change. Anatomical variations, such as the famous panda's "thumb", might also have detectable traces in the genome. Perhaps even some genetic drivers of their extreme cuteness will be identified!
However, if you were picking a bear to sequence for physiological insight, I'm not sure you'd pick pandas, as they don't hibernate, and hibernation is surely a fascinating topic. All those metabolic changes must leave an imprint on the regulatory circuits.
There is a clear solution to that. China is hardly the first country to sequence wildlife genomes identified with that country: the Aussies have been hopping through the kangaroo genome. So perhaps the Canadian's could go after the polar bear genome so the world can have a good hibernating bear to compare with the non-hibernating panda.
What other genomes might be sequenced as a matter of national pride? Are the New Zealanders launching a kiwi genome project? An Indian tiger (or king cobra) project? A Japanese crane sequence? One almost yearns for the lost central European monarchies, as then we would find out the genes responsible for a double-headed eagle.