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The 200 Mammals Project

By August 3, 2017Science projects

Jeremy Johnson

We’re not just a pretty (fuzzy, barking) face! Our research group at the Broad Institute and the UMass Medical School doesn’t focus solely on dogs — we study other animals as well. We have worked on many animal genetics projects in the past, from horses to lizards, “living fossil” fish, and even sea slugs! Each project is unique, gives us the opportunity to work with researchers from around the world, and informs and highlights very different aspects of biology. Currently, we are working on a very large-scale project to compare the DNA of over 200 different mammals! Even though 199 of the species in this project are not humans, the primary goal is to develop a deeper understanding of human health and disease.

How does studying the DNA of armadillos, elephants, and aardvarks help us with human health? By looking at which parts of the DNA are more similar than we would expect from chance, we can judge the importance of those parts of DNA. If a region of DNA is very similar in aardvarks and humans, we can assume that it performs a function that cannot tolerate evolutionary change. We expect to add to our understanding of how all the parts of our DNA work together, not just the genes. Genes only make up about 5% of the DNA, other parts contain “regulatory elements,” which control which genes get turned on or off, and understanding all the aspects of how DNA functions is key to understanding how life works!

Our work to examine DNA from such a large group of mammals is possible only because of the heroic efforts of our collaborators in San Diego. They have created “banks” of DNA samples from a huge number of species. Indeed, approximately 50% of our samples came to us from one small fridge at the San Diego Zoo! Technological advancements made over just the past few years have been essential in allowing us to examine and compare these DNA samples from such a large and diverse group of mammals.

One especially fun aspect of this project is getting to work with different researchers on different animals and learning how studying each of them will add to our knowledge beyond our big comparative project. For example, we’ve learned about a small mouse that can turn scorpion stings into painkillers (Onychomys torridus.) We learned the “tusk” of the narwhal (Monodon monceros) is actually a tooth, and studying it can help us understand our own teeth. Understanding how the Weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddellii) can dive so deep (almost 2000 feet!) will let us understand hypertension in humans. (We have 197 more of these stories . . .)

This is a very exciting time to work in genetics, and we can’t wait to be a part of the scientific advances that come out of all of our work. (But dogs are still our favorite.)

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