Friday, 21 April 2017

Bears breed across species borders

Date: April 19, 2017
Source: Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum

Senckenberg scientists have sequenced the entire genomes of four bear species, making it now possible to analyze the evolutionary history of all bears at the genome level. It shows that gene flow, or gene exchange, between species by extensive hybridization, is possible between most bear species -- not only polar and brown bear. The DNA samples of different bear species came from different European zoos, underlining their importance not only for conservation, but also for research. The study published in Scientific Reports also questions the existing species concept in general, because other genome studies too have, frequently found gene flow among species.

Pizzly, grolars or "capuccino bears" are common names of the offspring resulting from the mating of grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) and polar bears (Ursus maritimus). "Such hybrids among bears are not as rare as we have hitherto assumed," says Prof. Dr. Axel Janke of the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center in Frankfurt. In a large-scale analysis, a team of scientists led by the German evolutionary geneticist has sequenced six complete bear genomes. Each genome is about 2.5 billion base pairs large. "With these new data of the sun bear, sloth bear, Asiatic black bear and spectacled bear, we now have the genomes of all known bear species," adds Janke.

It has previously been assumed that the number of hybrids between polar and brown bears is increasing due to climate change, because brown bears invade northern regions and polar bears move onto the sea ice later than usual. The new results show however that an abundant flow of genes among different bear species occurred to a good deal in the past. Hybrids are thus not necessarily linked to climate change. "Bears can form hybrids in different combinations," explains Janke, and adds: "We knew this from zoos. In the wild, so far this was only observed for polar bears and brown bear as well as Asiatic black and sun bear."

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