Genome projects launched for three extreme-environment animals

April 26, 2009

BGI-Shenzhen, in association with several other research institutes, announced today the launch of three new genome projects that focus on animals living in extreme environments. The three selected genomes are those of two polar animals: the polar bear and emperor penguin, and one altiplano animal: the Tibetan antelope.

These projects will be carried out using Next-generation sequencing technologies, which have already enabled rapid, accurate, and cost effective completion of several other large genome projects at BGI-Shenzhen, including the Panda and the first Asian individual genomes. This powerful technology will be used here to construct complete genome sequences for each of these animals and to carry out detailed genome-wide analyses, including the identification of gene function and determination of the genomic basis of their unique evolution and extreme environmental-adaptation.

The polar bear is the world's largest land carnivore and is native to the Arctic Ocean and its surrounding seas. Although many of its physical characteristics are specifically adapted for surviving in a harsh climate, it is extremely sensitive to air pollution and climate changes. Due to global warming, the number of polar bears living in the Arctic Ocean area has dramatically declined to a population size of 20,000󈞅,000. The data from this sequencing project will provide essential tools for understanding its unique environmental adaptations and for monitoring the genetic health of this endangered species and assessing the impact of global warming on its ultimate survival.

The penguin is a flightless bird of which many species are confined to the southern hemisphere. Evolutionary studies have indicated that periods of global cooling strongly influenced penguin diversification; thus, researchers believe that global warming may result in a rapid decline in the diversity of these populations and a rapid decline in species number. The availability of complete genome sequence data will enable better analyses of changes in penguin population diversity as they relate to environmental changes and will also enhance current genetic research programs, such as those that focus on physiology, taxonomy, and reproduction.

The Tibetan antelope is native to the Tibetan plateau in China, and inhabits alpine meadow and desert regions at an altitude of 3,500-5,500 meters above sea level. The Tibetan antelope is the only extant species in the Pantholops genus. It has been evolutionarily isolated since the Himalayan orogeny, and has undergone millions of years of evolution that has not involved species migration or artificial selection. It has several adaptations for alpine-cold tolerance and most specifically for anti-hypoxia and running, making it a key model animal to investigate mammalian hypoxia adaptability.

The launch of these sequencing projects not only fills taxonomic gaps for completing an extensive and detailed complete genomic picture for the Tree of Life project that was previously launched at BGI-Shenzhen, it also provide an essential scientific basis for further studies on extreme-climate adaptation, evolution, diversity, species protection, and climate change.

"The world of genomics has witnessed revolutionary advancements in past 2 years, as driven by breakthroughs in next generation sequencing technology," said Dr. Yafei Liu, Head of Sequencing Business at Asia Pacific & Japan, Illumina China. He added, "Genomics research is taking a prominent position in today's world. BGI Shenzhen is a distinguished organization, not only because it has a world-class genomics technology platform, but also because it is assuming strong responsibility for society. Sequencing the genomes of endangered species is of significant scientific and social value, and we are very pleased that BGI Shenzhen is initiating these projects today." Dr. Liu also highlighted that ILMN has had a long and positive relationship with BGI Shenzhen and that they intend to continue to provide their best support to enable BGI Shenzhen to complete these and other important projects.

The institutions associated with this project currently include BGI Shenzhen, Illumina Inc., the Dalian Laohutan Ocean Park Research Center, Qinghai University, the Institute of Oceanology (Chinese academy of Sciences), and the Polar Research Institute of China.
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Beijing Genomics Institute at Shenzhen

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