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ERC

BATESON — Result In Brief

Project ID: 294601
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Sweden
Domain: Fundamental Research

Uncovering genetic secrets of adaptation and domestication

Cutting-edge DNA sequencing has enabled EU-funded researchers to better understand how some species adapt to their environment, or become domesticated. The findings could directly lead to more sustainable methods of fishing, as well as further studies into how genes are regulated.
Uncovering genetic secrets of adaptation and domestication
The purpose of genomic research is to understand how genes act and interact in order to control certain biological traits. This helps scientists to better understand how bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics for example, or identify certain mutations that cause cancer in humans.

‘We are currently in the middle of a biology revolution thanks to the development of new cost-effective methods for high-throughput DNA sequencing,’ explains Leif Andersson from Uppsala University in Sweden, project coordinator for the EU-funded BATESON project. ‘These technologies make it possible to study the genome of any species, and to study genetic variation and their biological significance. This is what we have done in this project.’

Ecological adaptation and genes

BATESON focused on two issues: ecological adaptation in Atlantic herring; and the genetic basis of animal domestication using the rabbit. Herring was selected because it has been a critical food resource in Northern Europe for centuries, and its huge population size makes it particularly suited to studying the impact of natural selection.

The project successfully identified more than 500 loci in the genome that affect ecological adaptation, providing what Andersson calls a gold mine for future research. ‘I am convinced that further studies into these genes associated with ecological adaptation will lead to new knowledge about gene functions that could also be relevant for human medicine,’ he says. ‘The majority of genes in herring are also found in humans and are expected to have similar functions.’

Furthermore, maintaining stocks for commercial fishing remains a key challenge. ‘The knowledge we have generated will also help to support more sustainable exploitation of marine fisheries through revealing genetically distinct stocks and monitoring how they develop over time,’ says Andersson.

‘As regards the herring, we plan to develop a diagnostic test based on a few hundred highly informative genetic markers that can be used to distinguish different herring stocks in the East Atlantic and the Baltic Sea. Our aim is to develop a test that is cheap enough to be used in routine stock management.’

Importance of gene variants

The project has also shed new light on how wild rabbits were genetically transformed into tame rabbits. ‘No previous study on animal domestication has involved such a careful examination of genetic variation in wild ancestral species,’ says Andersson. ‘This allowed us to pinpoint the genetic changes that have occurred during rabbit domestication.’

The rabbit was chosen for study because domestication happened relatively recently – about 1 400 years ago – compared to about 10 000 to 15 000 years ago for dogs, pigs and cattle. The team observed very few examples where a gene variant common in domestic rabbits had completely replaced the gene variant present in wild rabbits; it was rather shifts in frequencies of those variants that were favoured in domestic rabbits.

‘The results are very clear; the difference between a wild and a tame rabbit is not which genes they carry but how their genes are regulated i. e. when and how much of each gene is used in different cells,’ says Andersson. ‘It is very likely that a similar diversity of gene variants affecting the brain and nervous system occurs in humans, contributing to differences in personality and behaviour.’

An interesting consequence of this is that if domestic rabbits released into the wild might experience back selection of genes that have been altered during domestication because ‘wild-type’ variants have rarely been completely lost. This is an area of study that scientists hope to examine next.

Keywords

BATESON, DNA, genome, genes, genetic, sequencing
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