The History Of Penguins Laid Bare In Their Genomes

An international team of scientists has released data on 19 penguin genomes which can be used to understand how the birds evolved over time.

AsianScientist (Oct. 16, 2019) – The Penguin Genome Consortium has produced 19 high coverage penguin genome sequences that, together with two previously published genomes, encompass all surviving penguin species. The findings are published in Gigascience.

Penguins are a diverse order of species that span the Southern hemisphere. With their specialized skin and feathers and an enhanced thermoregulation system, they are able to inhabit environments from the extreme cold Antarctic sea ice to the tropical Galápagos Islands.

These birds also serve as the proverbial ‘canary in a coal mine,’ warning of environmental and climate change. Many penguin populations have experienced rapid declines in recent decades. For instance, the King penguin population has declined by 88 percent in just three decades. Penguins have thus become the focus of many ecosystem monitoring studies.

In the present study, an international team of scientists has captured the entirety of the genomic landscape of all living penguin species.

The goal of the first stage of the Penguin Genome Consortium project was purely to sequence high-quality genomes, but initial validation studies have demonstrated that these genomes are already producing valuable insight into evolutionary history of the penguin tree of life and the evolutionary patterns of their adaptation to Antarctica. For example, an initial phylogenetic tree presented in this study demonstrates that penguins have adapted to Antarctica on multiple occasions.

Senior author Professor Zhang Guojie at Kunming Institute of Zoology, China, added that the data also shows that the penguin ancestor rapidly adapted to different environmental conditions, giving rise to many ancient lineages that are now extinct, as well as the approximately 20 species alive today. The researchers highlight that the data for 19 penguin genomes is available for analysis by other research groups.

“The population history of different penguin species can be seen in their genome. We will provide new insights into the population history of all penguins over dramatic climate events, to predict population trends under future climate change scenarios. This research will help us understand how future climate change may affect other species, to help us develop conservation strategies,” said study author Ms. Theresa Cole from the University of Otago in New Zealand.

The article can be found at: Pan et al. (2019) High-coverage Genomes to Elucidate the Evolution of Penguins.


Source: GigaScience; Photo: Laurie Goodman.
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