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Giant panda genome sequenced, explains taste for bamboo


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giant panda genome sequenceWhat genetic machinations are behind the much adored, bamboo-chomping giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)?

An international team of more than 120 researchers has now sequenced this rare bear’s genome. It is the first genome project to rely solely on short-read next-generation sequencing technology, and the panda’s sequence is the first in the bear family and only the second member of the Carnivora order (after dogs) to be decoded, report the researchers. The findings were published online Sunday in Nature (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group).

Giant pandas have long been a biological curiosity, owing in part to their strict bamboo diet and low rate of reproduction. But as human development has sprawled, the endangered pandas‘ numbers have dwindled—down to an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 wild individuals, so learning more about what makes these animals tick may prove important in conservation efforts.

Indeed, the new genetic insights—gleaned in this study from the genes of a three-year-old female from the Chengdu breeding center in China—have answered some old questions. By parsing genes involved in the digestive process, the researchers found that, "the panda probably has all the necessary components for a carnivorous digestive system," the paper authors wrote, a finding that makes sense given its place in Carnivora and the Ursidae family. So, "the bamboo diet of the panda is unlikely to be dictated by its own genetic composition, and may instead be more dependent on its gut microbiome" for digestion, they concluded.

What, then, might draw a would-be meat-eater to faithfully devour such fibrous feasts? It might be a matter of taste, the researchers found. The lesser-known flavor profile umami, which is tasted in a common amino acid (glutamic acid), is aided by the presence of a number of T1R genes. In the panda’s genetic map, the T1R1 gene appeared to not function, which "might prevent the panda from expressing a functional umami taste receptor," wrote the authors. Thus, the big bear might not share other carnivores’ affinity for meaty, high-protein meals.

Despite the research success in the digestion department, however, the new genetic profile, which covered about 94 percent of the panda’s genome, hasn’t yet explained the species’ low fecundity rate.

Comparing the panda genome to those of the dog and human, the researchers were also able to gain a glimpse into evolutionary processes. They found, for instance, that the panda, which likely split from the main Ursidae line early, has a lower divergence rate than the dog. Additional insight into more mammals should also assist in better understanding the human genome.

Image courtesy of Zhihe Zhang

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  1. 1. c141clay 5:58 pm 12/13/2009

    Next step, to reactivate the dormant T1R1 gene, restoring the panda’s ferocious hunger for meat. Pandas will then become the fierce carnivores they should have always been.
    Fear the panda, the bloody panda.

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  2. 2. d5fox1 4:17 am 12/14/2009

    Someone should expend that much time and energy figuring out why Mick Jagger loves heroin. Was someone bored.

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  3. 3. mzw 4:26 am 12/14/2009

    clay: your only defense would be to show the panda its reflection through a mirror – it’d become incapacitated by its cute cuddlyness

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  4. 4. scigrl119 10:15 am 12/14/2009

    It seems that this finding goes against the basic model for animal development- that mammals, or carnivores, developed the taste for meat because they needed the protein in the meat to survive. Therefore, if that pandas’ T1R1 gene was "turned off" then how were they able to find adequate sources of nutrients to survive?

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  5. 5. scigrl119 10:15 am 12/14/2009

    It seems that this finding goes against the basic model for animal development- that mammals, or carnivores, developed the taste for meat because they needed the protein in the meat to survive. Therefore, if that pandas’ T1R1 gene was "turned off" then how were they able to find adequate sources of nutrients to survive?

    Link to this
  6. 6. grapedog 1:11 pm 12/14/2009

    Animals didn’t develop a taste for meat because they needed protein. The added protein of a meat-rich diet allowed them to develop faster. Leading them to eventually becoming dependent on the protein rich meat.

    As much as I think Panda’s are cute and awesome, they’ve turned vegetarian…they deserve to die off.

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  7. 7. christopherjames 3:07 pm 12/14/2009

    "lower divergence rate than the dog"

    What? Isn’t there a way to explain this with less jargon?

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  8. 8. nanomuthu 1:51 am 12/15/2009

    dog has got lot of varieties when compared to panda

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