It sounds like an argument scientists might have during a night of drinking: Which creature has the world's most interesting genome? But the question is more than a passing musing.
San Francisco biotech company Pacific Biosciences held a public competition to determine which critter should receive the honor. The winner: Sandy Maliki, a pure-bred Australian desert dingo. The company will now sequence the dingo's genome to help researchers study the process of domestication.
Sandy beat out four other interesting finalists in the competition, receiving 41 percent of the public votes, which were cast from around the world. This is the fourth year the company has sponsored the competition. The company invites researchers to send in grant proposals explaining why the interesting plants and animals they study should be sequenced. Then a committee of scientists whittles the entries down to five finalists for the final public vote.
This year, the finalists included the explosive bombardier beetle, which emits a boiling hot explosive gas when attacked; the pink pigeon, an endangered relative of the extinct dodo; a sea slug that steals chloroplasts from algae and the temple pit viper, whose venom could have medicinal value.
While Rhett Jones at Gizmodo argues that the dingo won because it's cute—and the internet loves cute—the researchers from the University of New South Wales who put together the proposal think its genome has scientific merit, too.
Bill Ballard at UNSW tells Kim Arlington at The Sydney Morning Herald that Darwin believed domestication was a two-step process. The first step is a naturally occurring process called unconscious selection, which leads to traits in an animal that might make it suitable for domestication. The second step is artificial selection, in which humans selectively breed those animals to amplify or diminish specific traits.
Sandy is one of three wild desert dingo pups found abandoned in the desert in central Australia in 2014. Purebred dingoes are rare because of widespread interbreeding with domestic dogs. So Sandy can teach researchers about unconscious selection and what natural traits made wild dogs suitable for domestication.
There's a lot people don't know about dingos. It's not clear whether they are a type of domestic dog or a distinct species. It's also unknown how they arrived in the Land Down Under. But since native Australians did not domesticate dingos, purebred animals remain essentially unchanged since they arrived.
“Sandy is truly a gift to science,” Ballard says in a press release. “[S]equencing Sandy's genome will help pinpoint some of the genes for temperament and behavior that underlie the transition from wild animals to perfect pets.”
Ballard also says there’s a conservation aspect to sequencing the genome since it will allow researchers to improve tests to determine the genetic purity of dingoes.
The gene sequencing will take place at the University of Arizona using PacBio’s Single Molecule, Real-Time (SMRT) sequencing technique, which sequences much longer sections of DNA at one time compared to other techniques. The data will then be analyzed by the German company Computomics.
Last year, a type of plant that extracts heavy metals from the soil won the competition.