Genetics of coelacanth decodedDate Released: Fri, 19 April 2013 09:15 +0200
RHODES University academics have played a key role helping decode the genetic makeup of the prehistoric African coelacanth.
The groundbreaking work on a fish that somehow survived the past 400 million years took a decade to complete and involved 20 scientific institutes around the world and hundreds of researchers.
Significantly, the end comes 75 years after the first living coelacanth was found in fishing trawler nets off East London and sent to Rhodes University’s Professor JLB Smith by Marjorie Courtney-Latimer.
Microbiology professor Rosemary “Rosie” Dorrington – who initiated the South African coelacanth genome initiative with Professor Greg Blatch soon after recreational divers discovered coelacanth colonies off Sodwana Bay in 2000 – yesterday said they had no idea how ambitious the project would be when they first started.
Speaking to the Daily Dispatch from the sub-Antarctic, where she is currently involved with research at the remote Prince Edward Islands, Dorrington said the rarity of the highly endangered coelacanth created extra challenges when it came to collecting vital tissue samples.
Another major research challenge would be collecting samples in their natural habitat, which lies between 100 and 700 metres underwater.
Researchers had to wait until some fisherman netted one as a “chance catch” – which happened in 2003 in the Comoros – before they could get their hands on a few milligrams of skin tissue and a blood sample they needed.
She said there were few challenges working with such a vast and widespread scientific team.
According to the research it appears the coelacanth has a slower “genetic clock” than other animals.
“The coelacanth essentially provides us with a snapshot of where we came from along our evolutionary path and allows us to begin to predict where we will be going to (genetically) in the future.”
Rhodes Biomedical Biotechnology researcher Dr Adrienne L Edkins – who also worked on the project – said: “This information will be vital not only in understanding how organisms develop over time, but also to support conservation efforts to protect this enigmatic species.”
Source: Daily Dispatch