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Scientists accomplish most ambitious genetics project to date

In the hope it will lead to important insights about health and human disease, an international team of researchers have sequenced the DNA of nearly every mammal on Earth.

Despite decades of advancements in genomics, it remains unclear what most of our DNA actually does. An ambitious international research collaboration is on course to change this, however.

Dubbed the Zoonomia Project, scientists from across the globe sequenced and compared the DNA of almost all forms of mammals in the hope that the findings will eventually provide new answers about how genetics shapes health and human disease.

Published today in a special issue of Science, the formidable undertaking is the most extensive of its kind in history, diving into the genomes of 240 mammalian species (horses, river dolphins, and greater mouse-eared bats, are just a few).

But what did their work involve? Essentially, after determining the sequence of chemical ‘letters’ that made up the genetic code of each species, researchers then ‘aligned’ those sequences so that they could be comprehensively compared.

That let them spot which genetic regions had been unchanged over millions of years of evolution, suggesting that these contained essential biological instructions for making mammals.

DNA Sequencing Fact Sheet

They were also able to tease out genetic differences between mammalian species, which allowed them to probe the possible genetic underpinnings of unique traits such as the ability to hibernate, or an extremely sensitive sense of smell.

And intriguingly, they even found some clues about how Homo Sapiens, evolved to have such a unique brain – the kind that’s able to process all of this data.

Highlights include narrowing the list of genes that potentially underlie diseases like cancer and improved insights into which species will risk extinction in the future.

The study also uncovered that stretches of DNA common to these animals has barely altered throughout 100 million years of evolution – a telling indicator that these sequences have a very important function indeed.

Not only this, but it’s amplified wider understanding of how mammals – inhabiting practically every environment on Earth – evolved to have such an astonishing array of sizes, shapes, and abilities and has proved that those which have randomly mutated have done so surprisingly fast.

Texas A&M University 👍 on Twitter: "A study led by a team of scientists from @tamuvetmed was recently published in @ScienceMagazine! As part of a series by the Zoonomia Project, the research

‘One of the really cool things about mammals is that, at this point in time, they’ve basically adapted to survive in nearly every single ecosystem on earth,’ said project leader, Elinor Karlsson.

‘And so actually finding what’s underlying those adaptations will be really cool.’

The discoveries come almost exactly 20 years after the end of the Human Genome Project, which took 13 years to complete and cost $2.7 billion. Since then, advancements in sequencing technology have allowed researchers to decode DNA more quickly and cheaper than ever before.

‘Humans are really good at studying humans, but when you get out into a lot of other species, we know surprisingly little about them and what they can do,’ says Karlsson, expressing her aim that these initial studies will blast the door open on more research about the plethora of mammals on our planet.

‘The Zoonomia project heralds a new era in which the joint production of genomes from hundreds of species will open the door to new ways of understanding mammals, mammalian evolution, and ourselves.’