The Amazing Genome of a Jurassic Fish
| Apr 18, 2013 12:00 PMThe African coelacanth is a study in persistence.
Known only through the fossil record and thought to have been extinct for about 70 million years, the fish was found quite alive in 1938 when a fisherman hauled one in near the coast of West Africa. In a study that graces the cover of Nature this week, an international group of scientists, including three University of Utah human genetics and biology researchers, show that this ancient fish has a lot to teach about how life evolved on Earth, particularly the evolution of land animals from sea life.
We’re proud to say that a gene-finding software program developed by Mark Yandell, Ph.D., professor of human genetics, had a lot to do with the study’s discoveries. Yandell’s software, called MAKER, is one of two such programs the researchers used to annotate and identify genes of the coelacanth (cee-la-canth) – a 5-foot fish that dwells in sea caves and has fins that resemble limbs. Michael S. Campbell, a doctorate student in Yandell’s lab, also worked on the study. Another University researcher, evolutionary biologist Chris Organ, Ph.D., who has appointments on main campus, identified a coelacanth gene influenced a critical adaptation in the move from land to sea: the ability to rid nitrogen from an animal’s body.
Since MAKER was introduced a couple of years ago, it has become recognized worldwide for its accuracy in annotating genes, and researchers have asked Mark’s help to annotate genes in all sorts of organisms – from fungus in Africa to lamprey eels and the gibbon, a small ape in Asia. MAKER’s potential goes well beyond those studies. The program’s ability to find genes can be applied to human health in ways such as learning about parasites that make people ill to understanding copy number variants, which cause DNA abnormalities associated with diseases and disorders such as autism. MAKER, I suspect, is just beginning to make its mark in medical research.
The research shows that coelacanth genes have undergone really slow evolution, which helps explain why those fish today are little changed from their ancestors hundreds of millions of years ago. Yet they survive. In a world that changes so fast, perhaps there’s something to be said for jumping in the slow lane once in awhile!
Author: Vivian S. Lee, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A.
About the Author: Dr. Vivian S. Lee is the Senior Vice President for Health Sciences at the University of Utah, Dean of the University of Utah School of Medicine, and CEO of University of Utah Health Care. Read her full bio herecomments powered by Disqus