May 26, 2016 I Clarissa Wilson

Giraffe Genome Project May Help Save Giraffes

The giraffe is fascinating creature. With that famous neck, it's no wonder the giraffe has a blood pressure level two times higher than humans. Of course, its brain wouldn't get any blood if it weren't for that higher blood pressure powered by an extra-large heart. Then there's those long legs to counterbalance that neck and a spine with seven cervical vertebrae, each eleven inches long, holding everything together. How on earth did this creature happen?

The answer is in its genome. According to Science 2.0,  the giraffe's genome and that of its closest living relative, the Okapi of the African rain forest, have been sequenced. This data should tell us how the giraffe got to be what it is and why the Okapi didn't.

Giraffe Ithala KZN South Africa Luca Galuzzi 2004
Photo credit: Wikipedia

The Okapi is a reclusive animal that wasn’t founded until the Victorian Era in the Conga of Africa. You wouldn't think it was the Giraffe’s closest relative because it doesn’t have a long neck. The Okapi is the size of a small horse, the same color as a chocolate lab on the top of its body and striped like a zebra around its legs. According to the New Yorker, while it doesn't look like it, the Okapi has almost one fifth of the same genes of the Giraffe.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Published in Nature Communications, a research study called the “Giraffe Genome Project” identified about 70 genes in the giraffe that are not found in any other mammal. Many of these genes regulate the physical development in giraffes and about two thirds of them are related to the physical and physiology development, meaning they relate to the giraffe's cardiovascular system. Four of them play a role in the spinal system and legs of the giraffe.

The scientists also checked out how these genes relate to the giraffe's diet. Giraffes feed on Acacia leaves. While these leaves are nutritious, they are also toxic. The genome shows how the giraffe developed a metabolism and cardiovascular system to cope with the toxins, and then how its physical features co-evolved to support these systems.

While the Giraffe Genome Project explains how the giraffe got to be what it is today, its greater benefit may be to help it survive into tomorrow. Researchers can't do much to stop giraffes from being hunted for bushmeat, but they can help determine how the creatures can possibly adapt to their rapidly disappearing habitats. Perhaps the only way for the giraffe to survive is to become more like its closest relative, the Okapi.

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