10 Feb 2023

Discoveries in sea turtle genes may hold the key to their conservation

In a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international team of 48 researchers led by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and includes the participation of CIIMAR and Faculty of Sciences of the University of Porto Agostinho Antunes, revealed the organization of the genome of two iconic species - green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea). These unique genetic characteristics may hold the key to the survival of these species in a rapidly changing world.

The study found that although green turtles and leatherback turtles evolved long ago from a common terrestrial ancestor, their genomes are remarkably similar.

However, differences have appeared that make them unique.

Thus, green turtles have evolved more genes dedicated to immunity, suggesting a better-prepared immune system, as well as more olfactory receptors that aid navigation, occupation of diverse environments and a specialization of diet. The leatherback genome showed less genetic diversity and has historically had lower population levels.

The relevance of micro-chromosomes, once considered 'genetic junk', has also become clear, supporting their critical role in the evolutionary adaptation of vertebrates.

These high-quality genomes provide invaluable resources to advance understanding of best practices for evolution and conservation in these endangered vertebrates, and will help biologists make more informed decisions about how best to protect these animals.