In 2008 New Zealand researchers were part of an international team that decoded the platypus genome, revealing information that may enhance understanding of other mammals and lead to new approaches to combat disease in livestock and humans.

Professor Neil Gemmell of Otago University says the platypus is an important animal to study because it is only one of three living monotreme mammals that likely represent what ancient mammalian ancestors were like when they evolved over 166 million years ago.

Understanding the genetic makeup of the platypus tells us what genetic features are common to all mammals and which are unique. Researchers compared the platypus genome with that of humans, mice, possums, dogs and chickens and found it shares 82% of its genome with these other animals.

“It is representative of an ancient mammalian group that shares some of the features common to reptiles and birds, such as egg laying, but exhibits behaviours and traits that define mammals, such as producing milk and suckling its young,” Professor Gemmell says.

Scientists believe the reason genetic material is passed down is because it is important in some way.

“It has been conserved across vast evolutionary time frames and is likely present in every single mammal that exists today.”

The challenge now is for scientists to find out why particular information has been passed down through generations and establish what functions it is responsible for.

    Published 26 May 2008