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After genome sequencing, scientists find 95% similarity in Asian, African elephants

BENGALURU: Scientists from the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune announced Friday that they have sequenced the genome of the Asian elephant, a significant development to know what exactly is unique about the species from the African elephant, its closest relative.

While a comparative study of the Asian elephant genome was published earlier this year, the new study found several sequence differences unique to the Asian elephant, with a significant number of them being associated with the olfactory receptors, which are associated with the sense of smell.

Scientists have also sequenced the 'transcriptome' – the complete set of RNA from a population of cells - of the Asian elephant for the first time, enabling future research in evolutionary and functional studies of elephants.

The elephant is the largest living land mammal in the world, the ancestors of which evolved around 60 million years ago. The Asian elephant or Elephas maximus is one of the species of the Elephantid family, which also comprises of the African elephant Loxodonta africana and the now-extinct Woolly mammoth, and is distributed throughout Southeast Asia. Around 7 million years ago, the ancestors of Elephas maximus are believed to have travelled out of the plains of Africa, through Eurasia, to its current habitat in the Asian continent. During this migration, the Asian elephant adapted to a different habitat. The current research traces the possible genetic basis of these changes.

According to the authors, there are underlying commonalities between the two species. “Almost 95% or more of the genome of the Asian elephant is similar to that of its African cousin. But when compared on a finer scale, there are differences such as single base changes called single nucleotide variants (SNVs), or rearrangements of entire blocks. The scale at which the comparison is being made makes a big difference. Our study has made the comparisons on a very fine scale to identify the variations that bring about the uniqueness of the species,” the authors said in a statement.

“The current study does not answer all the questions about the origin and evolution of elephants, it forms a guidebook for researchers to further probe into the past of these majestic creatures,” authors said.
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