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Genome of ancient fish could reveal evolutionary mysteries, Stanford scientists say

STANFORD, Calif. A prehistoric fish that until 1938 was thought to be extinct has caught the eye of geneticists at the Stanford University School of Medicine who hope to sequence the ancient genome to learn how animals evolved to live on land.

The 5-foot, 130-pound fish in question, called the coelacanth, ekes out an existence in cool, deep-water caves off the Comoro Islands in the Indian Ocean and northern Indonesia. Its lobed fins, skeleton structure and large, round scales are practically unchanged from its fossilized ancestors. This resemblance is what makes it an attractive target for sequencing, according to work published in this week's online issue of Genome Research.

Genetics professor Richard Myers, PhD, co-authored the paper, which makes the case for sequencing the coelacanth genome. "It's just making an argument that if we want to understand this level of evolution, this is what we need to do," he said. The next step is convincing a funding agency, such as the National Institutes of Health or the Department of Energy, to add the coelacanth to a list of high priority organisms to sequence.

Geneticists often compare gene sequences between species to learn how traits evolved. To learn what makes a mammal a mammal, for instance, they may compare a gene sequence in humans, mice, dogs, chickens and frogs to see what sequences the mammals share and that frogs and chickens lack. If all the mammals have one sequence in common, it is likely to be important for making milk, growing hair or other features unique to mammals.

This type of analysis has been all but impossible for learning how land animals crawled ashore and developed limbs and lungs. The problem is this: as fish evolved they went through a flurry of genetic alterations, making fish species almost as different from each other as they are from land animals. Given this vast diversity, a sequence in land animals that's missing in one of the fish speci
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Contact: Amy Adams
amyadams@stanford.edu
650-723-3900
Stanford University Medical Center
16-Nov-2004


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