Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Panda genome arrives

China announced over the weekend the completion of the giant panda genome.

For the benefit of presidential candidates who can't conceive of the value of scientific research on bears I'll suggest a few questions worth exploring in the panda genome (beyond the obvious direction of weapons development)

First, the panda genome is one more mammalian genome to add to the zoo. For comparative purposes you can never have too many. Since other carnivore genomes are done (first & foremost the dog, but cat as well), this is an important step towards understanding genome evolution within this important group. It is the first bear genome, but with the price of sequencing falling it is likely that the other bears will not be in the extremely distant future (with the possible exception of Ursa theodoris).

Second, completion of a genome gives a rich resource of potential genetic variants. In the case of an endangered wildlife species such as panda, these will be useful for developing denser genetic maps which can be used to better understand the wild population structure and the gene flow within that structure. Again, if you are running for president please read this carefully: this has nothing to do with paternity suits. If you want to manage wildlife intelligently and make intelligent decisions about the state of a species, you want to know this information.

Third, pandas have many quirks. That bambooitarian diet for starters. Since they once were carnivores, it is likely that their digestive systems haven't fully adapted to the bamboo lifestyle. Comparisons with other carnivores and with herbivores may reveal digestive tract genes at various steps in the route from meat-eater to plant-eater.

Fourth, as the press release points out, there are many questions critical to preserving the species which (with a lot of luck) the genome sequence may give clues to. First among these: why is panda fertility so low? U.S. zoos have been doing amazingly well in this century, but that's only 4 breeding pairs. The Chinese zoos have many more pandas & many more babies, but it's going to take a lot more to save the species.

No comments: