SHENZHEN - Chinese scientists have completed sequencing the genome of giant pandas. The announcement was made here Saturday.
They hope the new information will give them a better biological understanding of why pandas eat bamboo, have black circles around their eyes and produce few offspring.
Young giant pandas are seen in their enclosure at Beijing Zoo July 10, 2008. Eight giant pandas are part of a special exhibit at the zoo for the upcoming Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. [Agencies]
"By sequencing the giant panda genome we've laid the genetic and biological foundation for us to gain a deeper understanding of the peculiar species," said Dr. Wang Jun, a scientist with the Beijing Genomics Institute's Shenzhen branch (BGI Shenzhen), a core participant in the project.
So far, scientists learned, through drawing and assembling the genome sequence, that giant pandas are akin to dogs and human beings but are very different from mice.
They also discovered more supporting evidence that giant pandas might be a subspecies of black bears.
Giant pandas, known for being sexually inactive, are among the world's most endangered animals due to a shrinking habitat. It's one reason why scientists decided to sequence its genome.
"It will help genetically explain why giant pandas have poor reproductive abilities, so that scientists can help them deliver more cubs," Wang said.
Enhanced disease control was another benefit of the study, Wang said.
The International Giant Panda Genome Project started in March 2008 with scientists from China, Britain, the United States, Denmark and Canada.
According to BGI Shenzhen scientists, data from the project is expected to have an extensive impact on various scientific areas such as ecology,evolution and sequencing technology.
A three-year-old female panda, named Jing Jing, from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda breeding in southwest China's Sichuan Province, was chosen by scientists for the genome sequencing. Jing Jing was also the prototype of one of the five mascots of the Beijing Olympics.
"We have done such a huge amount of research that if we compile a book with the genome sequence, the height would be equal to the landmark 384-meter Diwang Tower of Shenzhen," Wang said.
There are about 1,590 pandas living in China's wild, mostly in Sichuan and the northwestern provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu.
In 2007, there were 239 captive-bred giant pandas in the country.
Yang Huanming, another scientist at BGI Shenzhen, said his colleagues will work on mapping out a more detailed genome sequence of the panda by the end of this year.
Chinese scientists have made big improvements in gene studies and genome sequencing in the past few years through their own efforts and participation in a series of international projects, Yang said.
Chinese scientists have contributed to the genome sequencing of a rice paddy, silkworm, hen and pig. In October last year, they finished sequencing the first Han Chinese genome, Yang said.