CORVALLIS, Ore. - An extraordinary advance in the speed of DNA sequencing is now allowing scientists to aim this powerful tool at problems facing endangered species and support a new initiative to help save the snow leopard from extinction.
Researchers from Oregon State University, the Western University of Health Sciences and the Miller Park Zoo in Illinois plan to sequence almost the entire snow leopard genome - a task that once would have been formidable but is now comparatively easy.
The payoff, scientists say, may be ways to improve controlled breeding of this endangered animal or otherwise address the range of illnesses that have helped to decimate its numbers around the world. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the snow leopard as globally endangered, and fewer than 8,000 individual animals are believed to be alive worldwide. Some experts say the actual number may be only half that.
"It took a decade for a huge team of researchers to sequence the human genome, but now we can generate as much sequence in a day as used to take about a year," said Todd Mockler, a molecular biologist with the OSU Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing. "That has opened up new opportunities in biomedicine, agriculture and other fields, and now we're turning it towards endangered species."
"Seeing what we can do to help the snow leopard is a unique opportunity," Mockler said. "But it could be just the tip of the iceberg if we use the same approach with many other threatened or endangered species."
The snow leopard, a beautiful animal native to the mountainous regions of central Asia, is susceptible to a range of health problems that don't seem to affect some other large cat species as much, and may reflect a genetic predisposition. It can struggle with pneumonia, enteritis, hip dysplasia, as well as squamous cell cancers and two different papillomaviruses. There's some suspicion it may have an immune deficiency problem.
Researchers will work with about 100 snow leopards from the captive population in North America in this project. Controlled breeding has already been attempted with some of these animals to help address health concerns. But an understanding of the leopard's genome could significantly improve that work and move beyond simple observation or demographic assessments.
"When we have the genome described, we'll be able to look for a gene that might be involved in disease resistance, for instance, or find sequences that are associated with various diseases," Mockler said. "This will give us a chance to target breeding programs and other efforts much more rapidly and accurately."
The technological bottlenecks that used to make this process cumbersome, expensive and time consuming have largely been removed by advances in recent years, Mockler said. More work now is spent on high-performance computing and bioinformatics that helps make sense of the wealth of data now available.
If this project is successful, researchers say, it's reasonable to believe that more programs will evolve to use genome sequencing with other threatened and endangered species.
The basis of this research initiative is to help address health concerns of snow leopards in captive populations, experts say, but it may produce information useful in the recovery of wild populations. Other endangered cat populations, such as the cheetah, Passas cats, sand cats, and Asiatic lions could also benefit once the success of this program has been demonstrated.
The OSU scientists and other experts on the project team also plan to work closely with zoo curators, veterinarians, immunologists and others interested in snow leopard conservation, through workshops that will help develop methods to apply functional genomics to animal conservation issues.
This project is being supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency that makes grants and supports the work of thousands of libraries and museums across the nation.
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Todd Mockler, 541-737-5207