CORVALLIS, Ore. – The North American beaver’s genetic code has been revealed and will enable scientists to gain insight into beaver populations, disease and where the animal sits on the tree of life.
A team of Oregon State University faculty, staff and students will release the genome sequence for the beaver – the school’s mascot – on Saturday at the annual Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego.
The North American beaver makes critical contributions to the health of stream and forest ecosystems. These animals are distinctive for their iron-laden, orange teeth that enable them to relentlessly chew on trees and for their dam-building activities.
The genome sequence, released as part of the Beaver Genome Project at Oregon State, is considered a “first draft” and analysis is ongoing. The public release will enable researchers around the world to analyze the information, said Brett Tyler, director of Oregon State’s Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing.
By understanding what genes are present and how they function, the DNA sequence will yield insights into beaver populations and their environmental adaptations, as well as improved understanding of their evolutionary origins, said Clint Epps, a wildlife ecologist in the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences.
The DNA for the project was obtained from a blood sample drawn during the annual checkup in August 2015 for Filbert, a 5-year-old beaver born and raised at the Oregon Zoo in Portland. Filbert’s DNA was decoded in the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing.
The preliminary analysis shows that the beaver genome is about 33 percent larger than the human genome and contains about 26,200 genes, said Brent Kronmiller, a researcher in the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing. Kronmiller led a team that pieced together the DNA sequence from the billions of fragments produced by the sequencing procedure.
About 60 percent of beaver genes are similar to human genes, said Pankaj Jaiswal, a genome expert in the College of Agricultural Sciences who, with his research team, is helping analyze the genome.
One set of genes being studied is responsible for the webbing on beavers’ hind feet. In humans, fingers and toes start out webbed in the womb, but the webbing is programmed to fall away long before birth (human webbing remains in some rare genetic conditions). Jaiswal suspects that genes involved in forming and removing webbing in human feet may be similar to those responsible for the webbing of adult beavers’ hind feet.
In another aspect of the Beaver Genome Project, Oregon State microbiologist Thomas Sharpton and his students are studying the microbes that reside inside the beaver gut, which may hold key to beavers’ unique dietary feats.
Scientists have estimated that as many as 200 million beavers ranged across North America before European settlement. By the mid-19th century, the animals had been removed from many areas. Some populations have rebounded, and it’s estimated that North America is now home to 10 to 15 million beavers.
More than 100 supporters contributed to the Beaver Genome Project through a crowdfunding campaign managed by the OSU Foundation. Oregon State is the first university in the Pac-12 Conference to sequence its school mascot.
“The crowd-sourcing campaign was a great way to involve the broader public in OSU science, and show them how science can be both fun as well as informative,” Tyler said.
More than 120 Oregon State researchers are affiliated with the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing, which performs genome sequencing and analysis for studies of human health, plant biology, microbiology and other purposes. On a daily basis, the center can sequence as many as 200 billion genetic building blocks known as base pairs.