A Chinese-led team including international researchers with a scientist from Cardiff University, has shed new light on some of the giant panda's unusual biological traits, including its famously restricted diet.
The team has successfully sequenced the panda genome for the first time and now, the genetic insights gleaned from the work may aid conservation efforts for the endangered species.
Giant pandas are known for their bamboo diet but the researchers discovered that the animal actually lacks the genes necessary for compete digestion of this staple food source.
Professor Mike Bruford, Cardiff School of Biosciences, worked on the study as part of an ongoing collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Institute of Zoology, funded by the Royal Society.
He said: "The panda is a true bear and is a carnivore, so it possesses the genes necessary for being a meat-eater and yet its diet is almost exclusively herbivorous. This may suggest that it relies on microbes in its gut to digest bamboo rather than on anything in its genetic make-up.
"Taste is also important when it comes to the development of dietary habits and the sequencers discovered mutations in the panda's T1R1 gene which may affect its ability to taste meat, one possible explanation for why a potential carnivore would rely on a strict bamboo diet."
The study found no signs of low variation that is usually linked to inbreeding and results support the potential for successful survival despite the small population size of the species.
In spite of the panda's low reproduction rates, the study also identified nearly all the reproduction genes critical for mammalian gonad function and development.
Discussing the study, Professor Bruford said "The panda is at high risk of extinction, with current estimates putting total population figures at less than 3,000. The study gives us a fuller understanding of the genetic basis of the panda's biology, and will contribute to disease control and conservation efforts."
"Sequencing mammalian genomes also undoubtedly helps our ability to annotate the human genome. A major limitation to this has always been the prohibitive costs involved in the process but the study used a short-read technology that can generate genome draft sequences in a very cost-effective manner.
"This will have far-reaching implications for promoting future genome sequencing of non-model organisms."
The study, 'the sequence and de novo assembly of the giant panda genome', has been published by Nature and a full copy of the paper is available online at: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7279/full/nature08696.html
For further information or to arrange an interview:
Professor Mike Bruford
School of Biosciences
029 2087 4312
Public Relations Office
029 2087 0298
Notes to editors:
Cardiff School of Biosciences
Cardiff's School of Biosciences holds a world-leading reputation, addressing major questions which face health and life scientists. In 2007, one of its members, Professor Sir Martin Evans, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his ground-breaking discovery of stem cells. Professor Sir Martin has helped build a strong research base in stem cell research and regenerative medicine at the School. Other major research areas include biodiversity and ecology, with significant discoveries about some of the world's most endangered species. The School also houses the Common Cold Centre, the world's only centre dedicated to flu and the common cold. The School has achieved top gradings in national, independent ratings of its teaching of biology, biochemistry, anatomy and physiology, and its pre-clinical training for doctors and dentists. It also has an extensive programme of public engagement, so that the NHS, industry and the general public can learn more about its research.
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