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Animal genomes can help cure human diseases

The study of animals has helped humans advance science and medicine for centuries, whether its through the development of animal models or observations of other species’ ability to overcome – or avoid entirely – common diseases. As our own medical remedies become more focused on individual genes, it would make sense that some of the next big discoveries in medicine come through analysis of the genomes of other animal species.

To this end, researchers at the University of Utah (UU) have recently published a study in the journal Cell Reports, which also appears in Newsweek. The study reports a number of findings that involve genes we share with a wide variety of animals, and the potential treatments that could remedy multiple conditions.

The study focused on genes in “noncoding” regions of the mammalian genome, which makes up 98 percent of all DNA. It is still unknown what role these noncoding regions play in health and disease.

“People used to call the noncoding regions junk DNA, but I see it as a jungle that has not been explored,” says Christopher Gregg, an assistant professor in Neurobiology and Anatomy at UU. “We are exploring the noncoding regions to try to discover new parts of the genome that might control different diseases.”

The researchers explored the “junk” regions of DNA in the genomes of species they believe have unique traits, such as elephant’s with their enormous size, bats with pointy ears, and dolphins and orcas due to their ability to adapt to high pressure environments. These unique traits arose through sections of DNA within the noncoding regions of each species’ genome evolving rapidly.

“We leveraged the extreme traits in different species to uncover noncoding regions in the human genome that likely have important roles in shaping health and disease,” explains Elliott Ferris, a bioinformatician and computer programmer in Gregg’s lab and first author of the study.

Results revealed that humans share similar versions of these genes, although in much smaller numbers. These genes include some that allow elephants to repair mutated DNA – a potential treatment for cancer. The genes that allow dolphins and orcas to adapt to high-pressure environments could help us learn more about blood clotting disorders. The development of albinism might be better understood through studying the DNA in squirrels that is linked to skin coloration. Eye development in the naked mole rat could shed light (no pun intended) on our own eye development and the factors behind glaucoma.

Overall, these findings could lead to improved approaches for treating diseases in humans, and help scientists discover new treatments for human diseases through studying the genomes of other animals.

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

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