Sharks have interesting biological features: a cartilage skeleton, highly developed senses, dermal denticles, and an oil-storing liver. However, these traits are difficult to identify within the huge genomes of sharks.
Previously, the genomes for sharks were larger than many other organisms, making it difficult for scientists to decode and understand the genetic background behind the lifestyle of sharks. However, the Japanese team at RIKEN Center for Biosystems Dynamics Research managed to decode whole genomes of two species of shark: the brown banded bamboo shark and the cloudy catshark. They also improved the genome sequences of the whale shark.
According to the RIKEN team, the large genomes in many shark species was a result of huge, repetitive insertions within the genome. Additionally, it was discovered that these shark genomes have been evolving at a slow rate, suggesting that sharks have kept some characteristics that were similar to distant ancestors.
Already, particular parts of the shark genome revealed certain characteristics of sharks. Using the DNA from the shark genomes, researchers discovered that the rhodopsin pigments in a whale shark can sense short wavelengths, allowing them to see at 2000 meters below the water level when they aren’t hunting on the surface. Furthermore, the team determined that there were too few olfactory genes in the shark genomes, meaning that the highly developed navigation system is not done through smell.
These results help fill the gaps in the genetic background in sharks while understanding the way sharks live. Keiichi Sato, deputy director of Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, says, “Such understanding should contribute to the marine environments as well as to sustainable husbandry and exhibitions at aquariums that allow everyone to experience biodiversity up close.”