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Beluga whale genome sequenced for the first time

BC Cancer’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre (GSC) worked with genetic material from the mother and daughter beluga whales who were cared for at Vancouver Aquarium for almost three decades.

The Genome BC funded research was published in the scientific journal Genes. Dr. Steven Jones, head of Bioinformatics at the GSC, led the research with colleagues from the University of British Columbia and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

“Beluga whales Qila and Aurora have contributed to an important scientific initiative that will allow scientists to better understand how this at-risk species is faring in a quickly changing environment,” said Dr. Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium, an Ocean Wise Initiative. “We were approached by our peers at Genome BC last fall and the collaboration is providing new insight into these iconic animals.”

When the whales fell ill in November 2016, Dr. Jones suggested genomics might help the Aquarium’s veterinary team discover what was causing their illness.

“We thought there might be some kind of infectious agent causing the illness,” explained Dr. Jones. Using sequencing, scientists looked for the DNA of a virus or pathogen among the belugas’ DNA in samples provided by the Aquarium’s veterinary team.

The researchers determined neither bacteria nor a virus was responsible. Results of the investigation concluded that the cause of death in both animals was a toxin, although extensive testing was unable to identify the exact substance involved.

“We had a lot of beluga DNA and we realized we had enough to sequence the complete beluga genome,” said Dr. Jones. “We think it’s one of the most complete mammalian genomes in the scientific world. It will ultimately provide us with many tools to study beluga whales.”

A thorough understanding of beluga genetics may aid conservation efforts for the species, which has been designated at-risk in Canada by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC); two populations are listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

The published paper is available online at http://www.mdpi.com/2073-4425/8/12/378

Read the full release at Genome BC

Beluga whale genome sequenced for the first time

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