BETHESDA, Md., Wed., May 9, 2007 An international team, led by researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), today announced the publication of the first genome of a marsupial, belonging to a South American species of opossum. In a comparison of the marsupial genome to genomes of non-marsupials, including human, published in the May 10 issue of the journal Nature, the team found that most innovations leading to the human genome sequence lie not in protein-coding genes, but in areas that until recently were referred to as "junk" DNA.
The effort to generate the high-quality genome sequence of the gray short-tailed, South American opossum, Monodelphis domestica, began in 2003 and cost approximately $25 million. The sequencing work was funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the NIH, and carried out at the Broad Institute Sequencing Platform, which is a member of NHGRI's Large-Scale Sequencing Research Network.
"The opossum genome occupies a unique position on the tree of life. This analysis fills a crucial gap in our understanding of how mammalian genomes, including our own, have evolved over millions of years," said NHGRI Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. "These new findings illustrate how important it is to understand all of the human genome, not just the fraction that contains genes that code for proteins. We must identify all functional elements in the genome if we are to have the most complete toolbox possible to explore human biology and improve human health."
Marsupials are unique among mammals because their young are born at an extremely early stage of development, attach to their mother's teats and complete their subsequent development while in a protective pouch. This makes the young readily available for early developmental research.