Public Release:  Giant panda genome to be sequenced

Beijing Genomics Institute at Shenzhen

BGI-Shenzhen is pleased to announce the launch of the International Giant Panda Genome Project. This announcement follows on the heels of the Panda Genome workshop held on January 21-22, 2008, in Shenzhen, China. Dr. Hongmei Zhu, a scientist from BGI-Shenzhen, stated that, "The goal of this project is to finish the sequencing and assembling of the draft sequence within six months."

The giant panda is a much loved animal all over the world and is considered a symbol of China, as illustrated by its being one of the mascots for the upcoming Olympics in Beijing. The excitement surrounding the launch of this ambitious project, however, has been built around how this new genomic information will have extensive impact in numerous scientific areas -- from ecology to evolution to sequencing technology. Such data will aid in understanding the genetic and biological underpinnings of this unique species, especially with regard to its very specific niche in the environment and the molecular mechanisms of its evolution. Of special interest is that these data will be extremely useful for protecting and monitoring this endangered species and will provide information on the impact of captive breeding. In addition, it will have considerable use in controlling diseases that could devastate these fragile populations. Because scientists will be utilizing the latest Now-Gen sequencing technology to carry out this research, this project will also have far-reaching implications for promoting advances in sequencing tools and techniques.

"The most noteworthy aspect of the project," said Oliver Ryder of the San Diego Zoo's Center for Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES) and a participant at the January workshop, "is that it is the first genome project to be undertaken specifically to gather information that will contribute to conservation efforts for an endangered species. The giant panda is a global conservation symbol and deserving of such an effort."

Ya-Ping Zhang, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Director of the Kunming Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, put equal emphasis on the evolutionary impact of these studies, saying, "the genome project will help scientists to understand the genetic basis for giant panda adaptation to its special diet and behavioral style, and to reveal the history of population isolation and migration."

Often referred to as a living fossil, given evidence that its ancestors existed in China over 8 million years ago, the giant panda has been the focal point of many research projects. So far, however, little research has been done on a genomic scale. The giant panda has a genome size of about 3 Gb, which is approximately the same size as the human genome, and is thought to have 20,000-30,000 genes. Taxonomy and genetic studies indicate that the giant panda is most closely related to bears, not to raccoons as was once considered, given their unique physical characteristics.

The Giant Panda is the logo and flagship species for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), China. Zhiyong Fan, Species Program Director of the WWF-China, made comments based on the importance of protecting the panda in the wild: "The project is a really ambitious. Its contribution to wild panda conservation has been discussed in the workshop. We are looking forward to its effort".

Dr. Lin He, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who works at both Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Fudan University, noted that the panda sequence obtained from this project will greatly benefit our understanding of the reduced fecundity in pandas when living under certain environmental conditions. This is a major issue for breeding programs that are carried out to strengthen the panda species as a whole. Dr. Lin He also raised an important point about how this sequence will further aid in learning about the interaction between genetics and the environment, and their impact on the physiology and pathology of the panda.

The panda to be sequenced for the Giant Panda Genome Project will be chosen from the Chengdu and Wolong breeding centers. In addition to producing a high quality genome sequence, the researchers will do a survey of the genetic variations in the panda population. The fine map of the panda's genome and the transcriptome studies will provide an unparalleled amount of information to aid in understanding both current and past status of the species, including historical population size, current levels of inbreeding, precise estimates of gene-flow, and past connectedness between the two different mountain-top giant panda populations.

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In addition to researchers at BGI-Shenzhen, the current participants in this project consist of scientists from all around the globe: including researchers from the Kunming Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences; the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Beijing); Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding; the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda (Wolong); the Beijing Institute of Genomics, the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI); BGI-Hangzhou; the University of Alberta (Canada); Cardiff University (UK); Fudan University (Shanghai); Sichuan University; Southeast University (Nanjing); Sun Yat-Sen University (Guangzhou); the University of California at Berkeley; the University of Copenhagen; the University of Hong Kong; the University of Washington (Seattle); the World Wide Fund for Nature, China; and the Zoological Society of San Diego.

BGI-Shenzhen also announced the First Asian Genome project last October and participated in the 1000 genomes project this January. (See http://www.genomics.org.cn/bgi_new/shenzhen_english/shenzhen_english.htm)

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