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Weird science: Genome mapping suggests giant pandas may eat bamboo because they can't taste meat

December 21, 2009 |  5:43 pm

Panda Genome mapping showing that pandas may prefer a bamboo-based diet because they can't taste meat could unlock secrets to ensuring the survival of the endangered species.

The findings published in Nature magazine come from a study led by the Beijing Genomics Institute's branch in Shenzhen in southern China.

The study found that pandas probably roamed the Earth as far back as 3 million years ago, with a genetic makeup that evolves more slowly than that of humans and other mammals.

"We hope the information gathered from mapping ... our 3-year-old female panda will aid in their conservation efforts," study co-author Wang Jun said Monday from Shenzhen.

Mutations in certain sequences of the giant panda's taste gene, which can affect the ability to experience savory flavors such as meat and other high-protein foods, may have turned them to a strict bamboo diet, the study said.

Further findings from the panda, named after the Beijing Olympics mascot Jingjing, suggested the decline in the giant panda population was not caused by inbreeding, because her DNA in various cells differed in many places.

Jingjing's genome map showed that pandas have a similar genetic makeup to dogs and are a subspecies of Ursidae, the bear family, confirming results found in studies from late last year and earlier this year.

"This is very exciting for the giant panda research community because much of it is new to us," said Zhang Liming, a researcher at the Wolong Panda Nature Reserve in western Sichuan province. "Further research involving genome mapping will help us develop better technology for giant panda breeding and disease prevention."

Pandas are threatened by loss of habitat, poaching and a low reproduction rate. Females in the wild normally have a cub once every two or three years. The fertility rate of captive giant pandas is lower.

Only about 1,600 pandas live in the wild, mostly in China's southwestern Sichuan province. An additional 120 panda are in Chinese breeding facilities and zoos, and about 20 live in zoos outside China.

-- Associated Press

Photo: Wang Wang, a 4-year-old giant panda who recently moved from China to Australia's Adelaide Zoo.  Wang Wang and another panda, Funi, are scheduled to stay in Australia for the next 10 years as part of a loan program with China.  Credit: Brian Charlton / Associated Press

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