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Panda Genome Sequenced—Reveals Clues to Bamboo Preference

Using next-generation sequencing technology, a Chinese-led international team has generated a draft genome sequence for the giant panda. The results provide clues to the panda’s predilection for a bamboo diet and demonstrate the feasibility of using next-generation sequencing technologies for accurate, cost-effective, and rapid de novo assembly of large eukaryotic genomes. The authors noted that insights gleaned from the giant panda genome sequence may aid conservation efforts for the endangered species. Although giant pandas are known for their largely bamboo diet, the researchers discovered that the animal actually lacks the genes necessary for compete digestion of this staple food source. Dr. Michael Bruford, an author of the report, noted that "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 the low degree of variation that is usually linked to inbreeding and, in spite of the panda's low reproduction rate, the study identified nearly all the reproduction genes critical for mammalian gonad function and development. These results support the potential for successful survival despite the small population size of the species. Dr. Burford noted, "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." The sequencing of the giant panda genome was reported in the January 21, 2010 issue of Nature. In addition to Dr. Bruford and many others, the authors of the report included senior author Dr. Jun Wang, first author Dr. Ruiqiang Li, and Dr. Maynard Olson. The Nature report is accompanied by a News and Views article and an Editor’s Summary. [Press release] [Nature Editor's Summary] [Nature News and Views] [Nature article]