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BGI Plans to Sequence Polar Bears, Penguins, Tibetan Antelope

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen plans to sequence the genomes of three animals that live in extreme weather environments and which could be in peril, including polar bears, emperor penguins, and the Tibetan antelope.

BGI-Shenzhen said on Friday that it will conduct next-generation whole genome sequencing studies and genomic analysis of these animals, including identification of gene function and determination of the genomic basis of their ability to adapt to extreme environments.

"Sequencing the genomes of endangered species is of significant scientific and social value, and we are very pleased that BGI Shenzhen is initiating these projects today," Yafei Liu, head of Illumina's sequencing business in Asia Pacific and Japan, said in a statement.

Along with Illumina, other partners in the project include the Dalian Laohutan Ocean Park Research Center, Qinghai University, the Institute of Oceanology (of the Chinese Academy of Sciences), and the Polar Research Institute of China.

Polar bear populations are declining and there are now estimated to be around 20,000 to 25,000 of them, according to BGI. The polar bear genome could provide understanding about how it has adapted to its environment and could be used to help monitor the health of the species.

The emperor penguin could be in for a "rapid decline" in population diversity brought on by global warming, said BGI. Having a complete genome sequence will be useful in monitoring that diversity, and it will "enhance current genetic research programs, such as those that focus on physiology, taxonomy, and reproduction," the institute said.

The Tibetan antelope lives in alpine meadows and desert regions at altitudes of 3,500 – 5,500 meters above sea level, and it has been isolated for millions of years and has not undergone any evolution caused by migration or artificial selection, said BGI. It has unique adaptations for cold tolerance, including anti-hypoxia, which makes it a useful model for studying mammalian hypoxia.

The institute did not say specifically that it would use Illumina's sequencing instruments for the projects. However, Illumina is listed as one of the participants, and BGI last week purchased 12 new Illumina Genome Analyzers, of which four are to be installed in the Shenzhen labs.