Platypus Genome Is Key to Understanding Human Evolution

March 23, 2009 11:20 AM
by Isabel Cowles
A study mapping the platypus genome will help scientists bridge the gap between reptile and mammalian evolution.

Platypus Has Characteristics of Both Repitles and Mammals

A study released in May illuminates the genetic makeup of one of the strangest animals on Earth: the duckbilled platypus.

The platypus is so physically unique that when scientists first examined it in 1798, they thought the discovery was a hoax, refusing to believe that a “duck-billed, egg-laying, otter-footed, beaver-tailed, venomous” animal could actually exist.

It’s not surprising that the genome of the platypus is also unusual, and of great scientific value. Jenny Graves, a scientist at Australian National University called the research on the platypus DNA “the most eagerly awaited genome since the chimp genome because platypuses are so weird.”

According to The Associated Press, “the egg-laying critter is a genetic potpourri—part bird, part reptile and part lactating mammal.” Sequencing the platypus genome has taken many years, but the result is of great scientific value.

“The platypus genome … is the missing link in our understanding of how we and other mammals first evolved,” explained Oxford University’s Chris Ponting, a key researcher in the study.

Analysis: Platypus genome key to understanding human evolution

Jenny Graves, head of the Comparative Genomics Group at the Australian National University, said that sequencing the platypus genome will shed light on human evolution: “Comparing us with the platypus means that we can say something about our common ancestor, which was one of the earliest mammals, so that means that we can ask questions about what happened to make us mammals.”

According to Mark Batzer of Louisiana State University, knowledge of the platypus genome may aid disease prevention research. “This is a huge genetic step. We’re learning a lot about mammalian gene regulation and immune systems. … We hope to, in time, identify the underlying causes and methods of disease prevention in humans.”

Key Player: The platypus

National Geographic profiles the platypus, describing its physical structure, mating and nursing habits, diet, and habitat.

Related Topic: Animal oddballs

FindingDulcinea profiles other strange and often overlooked creatures that are important members of the ecosystem.

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