New Delhi, Sept. 18: Scientists have mapped the first full genome sequence of a tiger and gained insights into the genetic machinery that makes big cats efficient meat-eaters with massive muscle strength.
Veterinary medic-turned-genome explorer Jong Bhak at the Personal Genomics Institute in South Korea and his colleagues have sequenced the whole genome of a nine-year old Amur tiger, living in a Korean zoo.
The scientists have analysed the genome of the Amur tiger in relation to smaller segments of the white Bengal tiger, the African lion, the white African lion, and the snow leopard in a paper published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.
The Amur is the largest and the only sub-species that lives in snow-covered territory among the five tiger sub-species — Amur, Bengal, Indo-Chinese, Malayan, and Sumatran.
The study, which compared the tiger genome with genome segments of other big cats, humans, dogs, and mice, has helped scientists pinpoint a set of 3,646 genes that they say appear to be shared by the big cats.
The scientists have also identified a set of 1,376 genes — many of which play key roles in the breakdown of amino acids — that could provide a molecular-level understanding of how the big cats have evolved to thrive on carnivorous diets.
Bhak and his colleagues said their study has also pointed to genetic signatures that could explain the strong muscle mass that make tigers efficient predators.
Wildlife biologists expect that the tiger genome sequence will over time help them develop more efficient conservation strategies that take into account the genetic make-up of tigers. Bhak and his colleagues estimate that there are currently only 3,050 to 3,950 tigers in the wild.
The experts have also identified what they describe as “provocative candidate” genes that could explain how the snow leopards have adapted to their high-altitude habitat — typically from 3,350 metres up to 6,700 metres.
The researchers said their genome sequence data could help future studies of conservation and population genomics of big cats.
They point out that the world lost four subspecies of tigers — Javan, Caspian, Balinese and South China — in the last century.