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Secrets to ‘extreme adaptation’ found in Burmese python genome

AFP-JIJI

The first full study of a snake’s genome has revealed the Burmese python to be one of the most evolutionarily advanced creatures on Earth, international researchers said Monday.

The findings shed new light on how these Southeast Asian natives have survived and thrived, and may offer new inroads to treating human diseases, said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Snakes have basically undergone incredible changes at all levels of their biology, from the physiological to the molecular,” said principal investigator David Pollock.

These changes took place in functionally important ways over the past 5 million to 30 million years, allowing the slithering creatures to adapt like no other, said Pollock, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Of particular interest to scientists is just how the Burmese python — which can grow to 7 meters or larger — is able to eat creatures as large as the snake itself.

Not only can its head and jaw open wide enough to envelop a meal the size of a deer, the snake’s organs supersize themselves and go into overdrive to speedily digest the animal before it rots.

In the space of a day or two, the snake’s heart, small intestine, liver and kidneys increase in size, ranging from a third larger than before to double their pre-feast size.

Once the meal is digested, the organs return to normal.

An analysis of the Burmese python’s genome suggests that a complex interplay between gene expression, protein adaptation and changes in the genome structure allows these snakes to do what others with the same genes cannot.

“You think of being a tube as being really simple, right?” said Pollock.

“But, in fact that makes life a lot harder, and they have got all sorts of adaptations in a sense that are very unique to make up for that.”