Depending on your perspective, giraffes are either the world’s most graceful animal or a baffling, doe-eyed sloppy eater. (This could depend largely on whether you’re observing giraffes on safari or, say, feeding them pellets at the zoo.) But personal giraffe encounters aside, one thing is certain: these fascinating animals represent several truly astounding evolutionary feats. Now, researchers are working to understand those feats, as well as the genetics behind giraffes’ most interesting qualities. More than that, scientists are asking: Could the study of giraffes actually advance human genetic research?
Exploring Giraffes’ Unique Physiology
Per Science Daily, an international team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Northwestern Polytechnical University in China is behind the giraffe study. The researchers investigated which genes contribute to the animal’s fascinating biological features. One example is the giraffe’s extraordinarily tall stature, which requires much higher blood pressure – twice as high as the average human. This makes sense; after all, giraffes need higher blood pressure to propel a steady blood supply to their sky-high brains. But does that high blood pressure have negative health effects?
An Interesting Twist in Giraffe Genetics
While exploring the effects of giraffes’ high blood pressure, the team discovered a particular gene known as FGFRL1. This gene appears to limit the negative effects of high blood pressure in giraffes. Per the team’s research, recently published in Science Advances, that gene may have fascinating effects on other organisms. Specifically, mice. Science Daily reports that the scientists introduced giraffe-specific FGFRL1 mutations into lab mice, and the affected mice suffered less cardiovascular and organ damage when treated with a blood pressure-increasing drug. The mice also grew “more compact and denser bones.” This finding begs the question: Could FGFRL1 gene mutations benefit humans, too?
Implications of the FGFRL1 gene
The concept of evolutionary pleiotropy suggests that one gene can affect several different aspects of the phenotype. In other words, a single gene – FGFRL1, for example – could affect a mouse’s cardiovascular system, as well as its skeletal structure. With this in mind, scientists could use the study’s findings while researching human cardiovascular disease. “These results showcase that animals are interesting models, not only to understand the basic principles of evolution, but also to help us understand which genes influence some of the phenotypes we are really interested in,” writes researcher Qiang Qiu. “However, it’s worth pointing out that genetic variants do not necessarily have the same phenotypic effect in different species, and that phenotypes are affected by many other things than variation in coding regions.” In other words, while giraffes and mice both experience the FGFRL1 gene’s effect on cardiovascular systems, humans may not benefit in the same way.
So, could giraffes advance human genetic research? Maybe. At this time, scientists need to conduct further research to determine if this study’s findings relate to the human genome. Ultimately, we don’t have enough information to determine if a modified FGFRL1 gene could benefit humans with high blood pressure and related cardiovascular concerns. The study is, however, the latest example of how clinical research could have cross-species implications. The results also helped shed light on one of our planet’s most fascinating creatures.
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