How wild species may benefit from mouse genetic data

Cheetah, black mouse and gorilla on green background
Researchers explore what mouse genetic data can tell us about the conservation of other mammals CREDIT: Spencer Phillips / EMBL-EBI

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Functional catalogue of the mouse genome can inform the conservation of endangered species

Researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) and Queen Mary University London (QMUL) alongside other colleagues from the International Mouse Phenotyping Consortium (IMPC) compared genetic data from mice with data from gorillas. Results showed how such analyses could aid in the identification of genes essential for healthy development.

Based on the results, published in Conservation Genetics, the researchers believe that IMPC data, currently used to understand human disease, could also help in the identification of genes essential for development or associated with disease in other mammals, such as the cheetah, polar bear, wolf, panda and cattle.

Current breeding approaches could be improved when supplemented with mouse genetic functional data. The approach would allow researchers to identify the matches most likely to produce healthy offspring or preserve genetic variation.

What is the IMPC?
The International Mouse Phenotyping Consortium (IMPC) is an international endeavour to systematically identify the function of every gene in the mouse. Despite having the entire genomes of many species at our fingertips, the exact function of most genes remains a mystery. To address this issue, the IMPC is phenotyping 20,000 genes before 2021. The phenotypic data collected allows researchers to identify what happens when a gene is disabled. This allows them to link genes with their function.

The main aim of the project is to generate data that help researchers understand human health and disease. The current paper shows how the data could also be useful for studying other mammalian species.

Of mice and gorillas

“When the number of individuals of a species dramatically decreases, loss of genetic variation takes place,” explains Violeta Muñoz-Fuentes, Biologist at EMBL-EBI. “Losing genetic variation increases the chances of genetic defects accumulating in the offspring, which manifest through health issues, ultimately resulting in reduced fertility or life span.

When the number of individuals of a species dramatically decreases, loss of genetic variation takes place

“Many zoos and wildlife conservation centres are seeing excellent results through their breeding programmes. Currently, many focus on minimising inbreeding. By adding a functional genetic dimension to the selective process, conservation geneticists can identify the crosses that would, for example, avoid a gene variant linked to disease in the offspring.”

For example, heart disease is a common cause of death for gorillas in captivity. By identifying gorilla genes linked to heart disease, researchers could understand the cause of the condition. This is the first step to envisage ways to prevent it. Similarly, this type of data could help identify genes linked to adaptation in certain mammals. For example, genes associated with fat metabolism can be a real asset for species like polar bears, which have diets rich in fats in the extreme environment of the Arctic.

“Using genetic data to supplement breeding is very promising, but we also need to address the conditions that lead to the decrease of individuals in the first place; otherwise, the accumulation of genetic defects will likely take place again,” says Muñoz-Fuentes.

A tool for conservation genetics

Although this type of research is still in its very early stages, gene functional knowledge is a powerful tool. It can maximise adaptive genetic diversity within a species and reduce genetic variants that negatively affect health and survival.

IMPC would like to encourage conservation geneticists and zoos to get in touch via the IMPC website if they are interested in using IMPC data for conservation purposes.

This post was originally published on EMBL-EBI News.