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How did the elephant get its trunk?

Scientists have set out to unravel the mystery of how the elephant got its trunk and why the leopard gained its spots by creating a “genome zoo”.

Scientists are to study how elephants got their trunk

African elephant: Scientists are to study how elephants got their trunk. Photo: AP

The scheme relies on DNA sequencing technology so new that it will only become available in the next two years and will attempt to map the genomes of 10,000 species of vertebrates.

The ”Genome 10K” project will involve gathering thousands of animal specimens from zoos, museums and university collections around the world and unravelling all their DNA blueprints, or genomes. It is hoped that by doing so, scientists will be able to tell how vertebrates evolved from a single marine organism into the species alive today.

The idea was first suggested in April 2009 at a three-day meeting of scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Professor Sydney Brenner, from the Salk Institute in San Diego, California, one of the project’s leaders, said: ”The most challenging intellectual problem in biology for this century will be the reconstruction of our biological past so we can understand how complex organisms such as ourselves evolved.

”Genomes contain information from the past – they are molecular fossils – and having sequences from vertebrates will be an essential source of rich information.”

Advances in the technology of sequencing – working out the repeating chemical patterns of DNA that form the genetic code – are needed before work on such a large scale becomes feasible.

But systems that will allow the scientists to embark on the project are under development and may be available within a year or two.

The researchers hope to be able to sequence an entire genome in under a week at a cost of less than $1,000 (£600).

David Haussler of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and one of the project’s architects, said: “No one has every really known how the elephant got its trunk, or how the leopard got its spots. This project will lay the foundation for work that will answer those questions and many others.

“Differences in the DNA that makes up the genomes of the animals we find today hold the key to the great biological events of the past, such as the development of the four-chambered heart and the magnificent architecture of the wings, fins and arms, each adapted to its special purpose.”

Dr Haussler also hopes that it will help explain how man evolved from his animal ancestors.

“We can understand the function of elements in the human genome by seeing what parts of the genome have changed and what parts have not changed in humans and other animals.”

Dr Scott Baker, from Oregon State University in the US, who edits the Journal of Heredity, is coordinating efforts to assemble DNA samples from all known species of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

”We are adding a new species every year or two, and there is some disagreement about how many actual species of these marine mammals there are. But to date, more than 90 species have been identified and officially recognized that will require tissue or DNA samples,” he said.

By Chris Irvine
Published: 7:00AM GMT 05 Nov 2009

Posted:  Just One More Pet

November 5, 2009 Posted by | Animal or Pet Related Stories, animals, Just One More Pet, Unusual Stories | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment