A landmark Burmese python genome study — the first full study of its kind — was recently led by Dr. Todd Castoe, an assistant professor of biology at The University of Texas at Arlington College of Science, and included an impressive 38 co-authors from four countries. The findings of the study were described in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) along with the genome of the king cobra.
The study of the Burmese python is significant to the study of genomics, since the snake is in fact one of the most evolutionarily advanced creatures on Earth, according to the consortium of international researchers involved in the study. The findings from the study not only impact zoological studies, but human evolution as well, as the evolution of the Burmese python may offer new inroads to treating human diseases.
Principal investigator David Pollock told AFP in a recent interview that “Snakes have basically undergone incredible changes at all levels of their biology, from the physiological to the molecular,” from the snake’s own slithering ability to its sheer size. The Burmese python can grow to 20 feet (seven meters) or larger, and yet is able to eat creatures as large as itself by opening its head and jaw to accept massive meals, as well as the snake’s ability to inflate its organs to go into overdrive in order to quickly digest large prey.
According to an article in Sudan Vision Daily, “An analysis of the Burmese python’s genome suggests that a complex interplay between gene expression, protein adaptation and changes in the genome structure allows these snakes to do what others with the same genes cannot.” Pollack remarked that while “You think of being a tube as being really simple . . . ” adding, “But, in fact that makes life a lot harder, and they have got all sorts of adaptations in a sense that are very unique to make up for that.”
The adaption of a tube-like structure occurred evolutionarily, as snakes moved underground as part of their habitat. “During this phase of their evolution, their skulls elongated, their lung capacity went down in response to the lower amount of oxygen available, and their eyesight was diminished, he explained. When they moved above ground, they developed the capacity to dramatically shift their metabolism, from low to high, in order to consume what might have been a rare meal.”
With this new genomic data in hand, life sciences researcher may gain a better understanding of major changes in key organs in the Burmese Python “could offer a new understanding of the mechanisms behind human conditions such as organ failure, ulcers, metabolic disorders and more.”
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