The project, published in today’s issue of the journal Nature, catalog and characterizes whole branches of Earth’s biodiversity, spanning 110 million years of mammal evolution, according to a news release. It’s the
largest and most diverse mammalian comparative genomics project to date, researchers said.
As part of the study, the team sequenced 131 placental mammal genomes. The worldwide total of mammal genomes now stands at 250. The study identifies genetic innovations that seem to protect certain animals from diseases such as cancer and diabetes, according to zoo officials.
The study also found genomic elements that have remained unchanged across millions of years of evolution. In turn, those elements predict mutations that are likely to be associated with the risk of disease, and which could lead to new forms of therapeutic development.
Genetic material biobanked in the Global’s Frozen Zoo has benefited conservation efforts, but “little did we know how broadly it would impact humankind,” said Dr. Oliver Ryder, one of the project’s co-authors.
The zoo’s biobank contains 10,000 living cell cultures, including more than 310 species classified as vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered or extinct.
Ryder, the Kleberg endowed director of Conservation Genetics at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, compared the genome project to the invention of the microscope.
“Before the microscope, we couldn’t see what was going on inside of a cell,” Ryder said. “Now, we’re viewing life from an entirely new perspective. DNA carries instructions, and now we’re able to read those.”
Important new species conservation findings have also emerged, according to zoo officials.
Dr. Megan Owen, corporate director of wildlife conservation science at San Diego Zoo Global, said genome sequences help identify a species” extinction risks and steer conservation efforts. “They also give wildlife officials tools to apprehend poachers and wildlife traffickers,” she added.
As part of the study, researchers prioritized endangered species like the Russian saiga antelope, the black rhinoceros, the Pacific pocket mouse and the Peninsular bighorn sheep.
The study was authored by 71 collaborating scientists across the United States and European Union, with funding from the National Human Genome Research Institute and National Institutes of Health.
San Diego Zoo Global’s work includes on-site conservation efforts at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents.