London, December 14 (ANI): The complete genetic sequence of the giant panda has revealed the iconic Chinese bear's carnivorous side, by finding that the animal has all the genes required to digest meat, but not its staple food, bamboo.
According to a report in Nature News, an international team of scientists sequenced a three-year-old female panda called Jingjing, who was also a mascot of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and found that she lacks any recognizable genes for cellulases - enzymes that break down the plant material cellulose.
"The panda's bamboo diet may be dictated by its gut bacteria rather than by its own genetic composition," said Wang Jun, deputy director of the Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, who led the sequencing project.
The researchers also discovered that the T1R1 gene, which encodes a key receptor for the savoury or 'umami' flavour of meat, has become an inactive 'pseudogene' due to two mutations.
"This may explain why the panda diet is primarily herbivorous even though it is classified as a carnivore," said Wang.
The research shows that pandas have about 21,000 genes packed into 21 pairs of chromosomes, including one pair of sex chromosomes.
Of all the mammals that have been sequenced, pandas are most similar to dogs - with 80 percent similarity - and are only 68 percent similar to humans.
But the bear's genome has undergone fewer genetic changes over time than those of dogs and humans, suggesting that it evolved more slowly.
The study also shows pandas have a high degree of genetic diversity - about twice as much as humans.
"This shows that the panda has a good chance of survival despite its small population size," said Wang.
"The study has laid the biological foundation to better understand pandas, and has the potential for improving conservation by controlling diseases and boosting reproduction of the species," said Jianguo Liu, a conservation biologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Missouri.
There is "no doubt" that information from the genome and habitat protection are both crucial for conservation efforts, according to Wang. (ANI)