Reference genomes provide first insights into genetic roots of mustelid physiological and behavioural diversity
Distribution and species-specific traits of the tayra (Eira barbara), wolverine (Gulo gulo) and sable (Martes zibellina). Vector graphics of species are created based on royalty-free images (Source: Shutterstock). Credit: Molecular Ecology (2022). DOI: 10.1111/mec.16443

The Mustelids are the most diverse family within the order. From the tayra in the neotropics to the wolverine in the subarctic, they have a variety of ecological niches and developed corresponding species-specific traits. An international team of scientists led by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research conducted a comparative analysis of whole genomes of several mustelids.

Multiple sources of variation contributed to candidate genes, including those that change the number, position, orientation or size of genes. The authors argue that genome studies of wildlife species need to change their focus on the latter forms of genomic variation. The results are published in a journal.

The badgers, ferrets, weasels and otter are part of the Mustelidae, which is the most diverse family within the mammal order. There are different challenges faced by mustelids in different environments. They evolved a large variety of species-specific behavioral, morphological and physiological changes related to diet and reproduction. Recent developments in technology allow the construction of draft genomes for many wild species, and mustelids provide wildlife geneticists with the opportunity to uncover the roots of this diversity.

We focused on the sub family Guloninae, within which several species occupy a variety of ecological niches, ranging from the omnivorous tayra (Eira barbara) in the neotropics to the carnivorous wolverine (Gulo gulo) in the resource-scar.

This is the first study comparing the genomes of different species within the same family and sheds light on how they evolved.

The first reference genome of the tayra was produced by the research team and compared to the genomes of the sable and the wolverine. Changes in the genetic code, also known as the single nucleotide variant, contribute to species differences in genes associated with ecologically relevant traits, but that large scale changes known as structural variant were also important, affecting parts.

The results are important, as they show that many types of processes responsible for genomic variation need to be considered, including those that can rapidly change the number and function of genes in a genome.

If we use the metaphor of a book to represent the DNA in a genome, the changes we are talking about are similar to the deletion, moving, or duplicating of large chunks of text on a scale of paragraphs, pages or even whole chapters.

Modifications in many genes could be related to the different ecologies of the species. The tayra is the only species that breeds throughout the year, and they found many modifications of pregnancy-related genes in the genome. Many modified genes were associated with diet and body condition in the wolverine, a circumpolar carnivore that must cope with seasonal food scarcity.

In a sense, starving for longer periods is part of the wolverine lifestyle, and we identified candidate genes that allow them to cope with this.

More information: Lorena Derežanin et al, Multiple types of genomic variation contribute to adaptive traits in the mustelid subfamily Guloninae, Molecular Ecology (2022). DOI: 10.1111/mec.16443 Journal information: Molecular Ecology Citation: Reference genomes provide first insights into genetic roots of mustelid physiological and behavioral diversity (2022, May 24) retrieved 24 May 2022 from This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.