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Genetic breakthrough opens door to better conservation strategies

Understanding exactly how animals have been able to adapt to climate change could have implications for future conservation policies.

Determining how horses in eastern Siberia have been able to adapt to temperatures of minus 70 degrees in less than 800 years could improve our understanding of how climate change affects species around the globe. This in turn could lead to the development of tailor-made conservation programmes, essential for preserving endangered populations. Such a programme was recently introduced to preserve the Przewalski’s horse, the last truly wild horse on earth. The EU-funded YAKUT project has focused on the Yakutian horse, which has adapted amazingly to life in the cold Arctic. These horses possess exceptional hair density and can regulate their metabolism. Through the use of cutting-edge genomic tools and state-of-the-art methods in ancient DNA research, the YAKUT team has been able to piece together the evolutionary history of this species, tracing it back to the migration of the Yakut people into the region in the 13-15th century AD. Yakutian horses are therefore directly related to the domesticated horses found in Mongolia. The findings, published in a recent edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), have important implications for understanding how species are able to adapt to changing climactic conditions, and will help in the development of sound management strategies to preserve this unique genetic heritage. The project team was able to identify the genes responsible for these adaptations, which led them to conclude that the adaptation of Yakutian horses to their environment took place through a massive reprograming of gene expression. This involved adapting biological functions, such as hormonal responses to the cold and the production of anti-freezing compounds. These striking adaptations took place in less than 800 years, one of the fastest examples of adaptation within mammals. ‘This represents about a hundred generations for horses,’ says project coordinator Dr. Ludovic Orlando from the University of Copenhagen. ‘That shows how fast evolution can go when selective pressures for survival are as strong as in the extreme environment of Yakutia.’ The results have also helped to clear up the mystery of the origins of the Yakutian horse, which has been the subject of conjecture for years. Fossil records show that horses have been present in the region for at least 30 000 years and there has been debate over whether present-day Yakutian horses are the direct descendants of these now-extinct species. Through careful genetic analysis, the YAKUT team has been able to show that this is not the case. Rather, Yakutian horses emerged out of Mongolia together with the nomadic Yakut people. Indeed, in addition to underlining the importance of genomics in understanding the impact of climate change and advancing conservation, the project has also helped to shine a light on the role of horses in this fascinating culture. Horses have always been essential to the survival and development of the Yakut people, who have developed an economy almost entirely based on these animals. Throughout their history the Yakut have relied on horses for transport and communication, while horse meat and hide have been crucial for surviving the extremely cold winters. The YAKUT project is scheduled for completion in May 2017. For further information please visit: YAKUT project website

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