Research into the scaly anteater genome could provide clues to human immunity

Research into the scaly anteater genome could provide clues to human immunity

PR Newswire

SUZHOU, China, Oct. 18, 2018

SUZHOU, China, Oct. 18, 2018 /PRNewswire/ -- An international research team led by Dr. Siew Woh Choo of Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University has developed the first genome maps of the pangolin, or scaly anteater, and is applying the findings to better understand immunity in other mammals, including human beings.

It was the pangolin's vulnerability as well as its unique traits that attracted Dr. Choo to the research project. "I wanted to try to help to protect this endangered species," said Dr. Choo, director of the new Health Technology University Research Centre (HT-URC) at XJTLU and associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. "I also believed sequencing the pangolin genome would uncover aspects of immunity that would be relevant to medical science."

Dr. Choo and his team obtained DNA samples from two critically endangered species of pangolin: the Chinese pangolin and Malayan pangolin, which were sent for sequencing. The genome data was then shared with researchers in the U.S., Russia, Malaysia, Portugal, and at Peking University and NYU Shanghai in China.

By sequencing and analysing the pangolin genomes, the international team sought to get better insight into the genetics of this endangered species. They also sought to answer a particular question: is there genetic evidence to support the hypothesis that the evolution of the pangolin's scales occurred to protect it against microbial infections?

"The pangolin is the only mammal with scales covering its body," said Dr. Choo. "It seems obvious that the pangolin's scales are there to protect it against injury and attacks from predators. But there could also be the less-obvious function of improving the animal's immune response. The pangolin's scales could have developed in part to counteract the loss of function of a certain gene (IFNE) which is functional in the human genome, and the consequent loss of skin immunity," he said.

Dr. Choo noted that by studying the genetic origins of the unique traits of pangolins we can get better insights into mammalian evolution in general, including human evolution. His team is continuing to investigate the genetics of pangolins and is exploring the possibility of establishing the pangolin as a good comparative model for understanding human immunity and diseases. He is also overseeing other research projects in his role as director of the HT-URC, which aims to develop innovative solutions to meet the current and future needs of health and sustainability.

 

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