Kangaroos form an important niche in the tree of life, but until now their DNA had never been sequenced. In an article published August 19, 2011 in BioMed Central's open access journal Genome Biology, an international consortium of researchers present the first kangaroo genome sequence – that of the tammar wallaby species – and find hidden in their data the gene that may well be responsible for the kangaroo's characteristic hop. "The tammar wallaby sequencing project has provided us with many possibilities for understanding how marsupials are so different to us," says Professor Marilyn Renfree of The University of Melbourne. Dr. Renfree was one of the lead researchers on the project, which was conducted by an international consortium of scientists from Australia, USA, Japan, England, and Germany. Tammar wallabies have many intriguing biological characteristics. For example, the 12-month gestation includes an 11-month period of suspended animation in the womb. At birth, the young weigh only half a gram, and spend 9 months in the mother's pouch, where the newborn babies reside for protection. Researchers hope that the genome sequence will offer clues as to how tammar wallaby genes regulate these fascinating features of kangaroo life. In addition to zeroing in on the "hop" genes, other exciting discoveries from the genome include the 1,500 smell detector genes responsible for the tammar wallaby's excellent sense of smell, and genes that make antibiotics in the mother's milk in order to protect kangaroo newborns from E. coli and other harmful bacteria. As Dr. Renfree explains, lessons to be learned from the tammar wallaby genome "may well be helpful in producing future treatments for human disease." The first kangaroo genome is a key milestone in the study of mammalian evolution.
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