Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Polar Bear Evolution Tracked Climate Change, Study Suggests

25.07.2012
An analysis of newly sequenced polar bear genomes is providing important clues about the species' evolution, suggesting that climate change and genetic exchange with brown bears helped create the polar bear as we know it today.

The international study, led by the Pennsylvania State University and the University at Buffalo, found evidence that the size of the polar bear population fluctuated with key climatic events over the past million years, growing during periods of cooling and shrinking in warmer times.

The research also suggests that while polar bears evolved into a distinct species as many as 4-5 million years ago, the animals may have interbred with brown bears until much more recently.

These intimate relations may be tied to changes in the Earth's climate, with the retreat of glaciers bringing the two species into greater contact as their ranges overlapped, said Charlotte Lindqvist, the study's senior author and an assistant professor of biological sciences at UB.

"Maybe we're seeing a hint that in really warm times, polar bears changed their life style and came into contact, and indeed interbred, with brown bears," said Stephan Schuster, co-lead author, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State, and a research scientist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

The findings will be published online in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on July 23. The study is the most extensive analysis to date of polar bear DNA, scientists say. The research team, representing 13 institutions in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia, as well as Mexico's Laboratorio Nacional de Genomica para la Biodiversidad (Langebio), sequenced and analyzed the nuclear genomes of 28 different bears, with many DNA samples provided by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Norwegian Polar Institute.

"We generated a first-rate set of data, including deep sequence coverage for the entire genomes of a polar bear, three brown bears and a black bear, plus lower coverage of 23 additional polar bears, including a 120,000-year-old individual; very few vertebrate species have such comprehensive genomic resources available," Schuster said. Using this vast amount of data, the scientists discovered that polar bears are actually an older species than previously thought -- indeed, far more ancient than suggested by a recent study that placed the species' age at 600,000 years old. That analysis looked only at small segments of DNA.

"We showed, based on a consideration of the entire DNA sequence, that earlier inferences were entirely misleading," said study co-lead author Webb Miller, a Penn State professor of biology and computer science and engineering. "Rather than polar bears splitting from brown bears a few hundred thousand years ago, we estimate that the split occurred 4-5 million years ago."

"This means polar bears definitely persisted through warming periods during Earth's history," UB’s Lindqvist said. She cautions, however, that the species' endurance over several million years doesn't guarantee its future survival.

To model historical populations of the polar bear, the scientists used computer simulations to analyze a deeply sequenced polar bear genome.

"This is the first time we can see, from their genes, how the population history of polar bears tracked Earth's climate history," Lindqvist said. "We see an increase in polar bears at the end of the Early Pleistocene as the Earth became much colder, and a continuous decline in the size of the population during warmer times.

“We also found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that polar bears occur in much smaller numbers today than during prehistory," Lindqvist continued. "They have indeed lost a lot of their past genetic diversity, and because of this, they are very likely more sensitive to climate change threats today."

Discrepancies between the estimated age of polar bears in the new study and past studies could be explained by interbreeding between polar bears and brown bears since the species split from each other.

The new analysis uncovered more genetic similarities than previously known between polar bears and ABC brown bears, an isolated group from southeastern Alaska -- suggesting that these animals have exchanged genes since becoming separate species.

"The ABC brown bears' mitochondrial sequences are much more like polar bears' than like other brown bears'," Miller said. "This made us wonder what other parts of their genomes are 'polar-bear-like.' We mapped such regions, which constitute 5 to 10 percent of their total DNA, onto the genomes of two ABC brown bears. As such, brown/polar bear hybridization, which has been observed recently in Arctic Canada, has undoubtedly contributed to shaping the modern polar bear's evolutionary story."

This intermingling between species is just one interesting finding emerging from the enormous trove of data that the PNAS study produced. Another question that the research is beginning to address: What makes a polar bear a polar bear?

Polar bears have genetic differences from brown bears that let them survive in an Arctic climate with very different diets, and the new study identified genes that may be responsible for traits such as polar bears' pigmentation and the high fat content of their milk.

This study received financial support from Penn State University, the College of Arts and Sciences at the University at Buffalo, U.S. Geological Survey's Changing Arctic Ecosystem Initiative, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources in Canada, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

CONTACTS
Charlotte Lindqvist: cl243@buffalo.edu, (+1) 510-388-1831 or (+1) 716-645-4986
Webb Miller: webb@bx.psu.edu, office (+1) 814-865-4551 mobile (+1) 814-234-6289
Stephan Schuster: scs@bx.psu.edu, mobile after 23 July (+1) 814-441-3513
Charlotte Hsu (PIO at UB): chsu22@buffalo.edu, (+1) 716-645-4655 or (+1) 510-388-1831

Barbara Kennedy (PIO at Penn State): science@psu.edu, (+1) 814-863-4682

Charlotte Lindqvist | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://www.buffalo.edu

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Rutgers-led innovation could spur faster, cheaper, nano-based manufacturing
14.02.2018 | Rutgers University

nachricht New study from the University of Halle: How climate change alters plant growth
12.01.2018 | Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: In best circles: First integrated circuit from self-assembled polymer

For the first time, a team of researchers at the Max-Planck Institute (MPI) for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany, has succeeded in making an integrated circuit (IC) from just a monolayer of a semiconducting polymer via a bottom-up, self-assembly approach.

In the self-assembly process, the semiconducting polymer arranges itself into an ordered monolayer in a transistor. The transistors are binary switches used...

Im Focus: Demonstration of a single molecule piezoelectric effect

Breakthrough provides a new concept of the design of molecular motors, sensors and electricity generators at nanoscale

Researchers from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the CAS (IOCB Prague), Institute of Physics of the CAS (IP CAS) and Palacký University...

Im Focus: Hybrid optics bring color imaging using ultrathin metalenses into focus

For photographers and scientists, lenses are lifesavers. They reflect and refract light, making possible the imaging systems that drive discovery through the microscope and preserve history through cameras.

But today's glass-based lenses are bulky and resist miniaturization. Next-generation technologies, such as ultrathin cameras or tiny microscopes, require...

Im Focus: Stem cell divisions in the adult brain seen for the first time

Scientists from the University of Zurich have succeeded for the first time in tracking individual stem cells and their neuronal progeny over months within the intact adult brain. This study sheds light on how new neurons are produced throughout life.

The generation of new nerve cells was once thought to taper off at the end of embryonic development. However, recent research has shown that the adult brain...

Im Focus: Interference as a new method for cooling quantum devices

Theoretical physicists propose to use negative interference to control heat flow in quantum devices. Study published in Physical Review Letters

Quantum computer parts are sensitive and need to be cooled to very low temperatures. Their tiny size makes them particularly susceptible to a temperature...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

2nd International Conference on High Temperature Shape Memory Alloys (HTSMAs)

15.02.2018 | Event News

Aachen DC Grid Summit 2018

13.02.2018 | Event News

How Global Climate Policy Can Learn from the Energy Transition

12.02.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Contacting the molecular world through graphene nanoribbons

19.02.2018 | Materials Sciences

When Proteins Shake Hands

19.02.2018 | Materials Sciences

Cells communicate in a dynamic code

19.02.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>