Texas Tech University

Texas Tech Researchers Contribute to Groundbreaking Mammal Research

Doug Hensley

April 27, 2023

David Ray

More than a dozen scientists from multiple disciplines across the university collaborated on the Zoonomia Project.

Why was Balto, a famous sled dog from the 1920s, able to survive the unforgiving conditions of Alaska? It was one of many findings uncovered through the Zoonomia Project, which involved researchers from Texas Tech University.

More than a dozen researchers from the Department of Biological Sciences were among the major collaborators in the Zoonomia Project who will publish their multi-year comparative genomic analysis of mammals and the influence of genetic change on health and disease in the April 28 issue of Science magazine.

The laboratory of David Ray, professor and associate chair of the department, studies transposable elements (TEs), sequences capable of moving from place to place within genomes. Overall, 14 researchers from Texas Tech were involved in the project, including four faculty, three from Biological Sciences and one from Natural Resources Management.

“This mobility can be both a blessing and a curse,” Ray said. “The instability caused by having fragments of DNA inserted randomly throughout the genome can lead to evolutionary innovation. As one might imagine, however, that same random insertion of DNA fragments also has the potential to disrupt genomes, often leading to disease, including several in our own species.”

That mobility will be featured in several manuscripts to be published as a result of the Zoonomia work. Several papers detailing findings from the project will be published in a special issue of Science in April. The flagship manuscript details the results of two other manuscripts that have emerged from the collaboration.

The first, to also be published in Science, was written by lead author and Texas Tech graduate student Austin Osmanski. It describes the TE repertoires of 248 placental mammals. TEs make up a sizable proportion of all mammalian genomes, but it is this species which reside on the margins that are now attracting more attention.

"The scientific impact of our curation effort at Texas Tech will serve as the baseline for every mammalian genome study in the future,” Osmanski said. “Mammals with TE proportions that are out of the norm for mammals, like sloths or pangolins, offer new avenues for research and reinforce the necessity for their conservation.”

The second was authored by Texas Tech graduate student Nicole Paulat and will be published in Molecular Biology and Evolution. Paulat describes the place bats hold with regard to TEs in mammals. Unlike some bat species that have eliminated TE activity, other species have accumulated TE types other mammals do not tolerate. 

“Bats are fascinating. They have a lot going on, which makes them fun to study,” Paulat said. The research indicates the unique TEs originated in other species and were transferred to bats via viruses, an interesting finding considering the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Zoonomia Project has been cataloging the diversity in mammalian genomes by comparing DNA sequences from 240 species that exist today. The past 100 million years have caused mammals to adapt to virtually every environment on the planet.

More than 150 people across seven time zones have been collaborators in the project, the largest comparative mammalian genomics resource in the world.