Rare and endangered after surviving for eight million years, the giant panda may have moved a step away from extinction after scientists completed sequencing their genome.
A group of experts from China, Britain, Canada, the United States and Hong Kong have learnt, through drawing and assembling the genome sequence of the bear that the animal is somewhat akin to dogs and even humans -- but very different from mice.
Wang Jun, with the Beijing Genomics Institute’s branch in the southern city of Shenzhen, said: “"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."
Scientists may be closer to understanding why pandas eat bamboo – even though their digestive systems appear to be better suited to a carnivorous diet – why they have those iconic black circles around their eyes and why adult pandas are so huge but the cubs weigh only one percent of the mothers' weight.
Above all, the new information could help scientists to learn why pandas produce so few offspring. Dr Wang said: “It will help genetically explain why giant pandas have poor reproductive abilities, so that scientists can help them deliver more cubs."
The sequencing began in March and was completed less than eight months later. The panda chosen for the research was a three-year-old female, Jing Jing, from the southwestern Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. She already has a claim to fame: she was the prototype for the panda that was one of the five mascots for the Beijing Olympics.
Dr Wang said the research was so enormous that if scientists compiled the whole into a book it would soar as high as Shenzhen's tallest building – the 384-metre Diwang Tower.
Among their discoveries was that the genome of the dog came closest to that of the giant panda in structure with 80 percent similarity, while the panda has a 68 percent similarity to human beings.
The findings could also put an end to decades of debate as to whether the giant panda is a bear. The scientists discovered more supporting evidence to show the animal could be a subspecies of black bear – rather than a member of the racoon family as it has sometimes been categorised.
China estimates about 1,590 pandas still live in the wild, most in the northwestern provinces of Shaanxi, Sichuan and Gansu. Last year, there were a total of 239 captive-bred animals in China, many living in a reserve in the Wolong valley in Sichuan. However, that valley was devastated by the huge earthquake last May and the breeding centre there is to be closed. The pandas are being moved to other centres and zoos across the country.
Much more work remains to be done with the genome. Mapping of a more detailed genome sequence is to begin in China by the end of the year.
Scientists map panda genome - Times Online