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Turtle Genome Decoded For The First Time

Apr 04, 2013 05:46 PM EDT

Scientists have decoded the genome of the western painted turtle, one of the most abundant turtles on Earth, a move that may unravel clues about the creature's ability to survive without oxygen during long winters spent hibernating in ice-covered ponds. 

The news comes from a multi-institutional team of researchers who recently published their work in the journal Genome Biology.

 The research found the turtle's genetic evolution to match its pace on the ground, i.e., very slow, about one-third the rate of humans and one-fifth the rate of the fastest evolving python.

"Turtles are nothing short of an enigma," said senior author Richard K. Wilson, Washington University's Genome Institute, in a press statement. "They may be slowly evolving, but turtles have developed an array of enviable features. They resist growing old, can reproduce even at advanced ages, and their bodies can freeze solid, thaw and survive without damaging delicate organs and tissues. We could learn a lot from them."

Over 210 million years, the turtles have evolutionarily changed very little, the researchers state.

The western painted turtle is the first turtle and only the second reptile to have its genome sequenced.

 The western painted turtle can go extraordinary lengths of time without oxygen. The scientists identified 19 genes in the brain and 23 in the heart that are activated in low-oxygen conditions, including one gene, APOLD1, whose expression is increased nearly 130-fold, which sheds some light on how the creatures are able to live for so long in oxygen devoid environments.

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