In a pair of papers published in the journal PNAS, two international teams of researchers have described the first complete genome sequences of the Burmese python and the king cobra. Although snakes have broadly similar genomes to many other vertebrates, they’ve rapidly evolved some extreme traits, such as the production of highly toxic venom by cobras, or the ability to eat and digest their prey whole.
Pythons achieve this by ramping up their metabolism and increasing the mass of their internal organs in a matter of hours. The new python genome challenges the current idea that this ability is due to changes in genes themselves. Instead, it suggests that more subtle changes in gene activity, protein structure and the organisation of genes are at work. In addition to changes in individual genes, the scientists think the snakes’ extreme characteristics could be linked to gains or losses of whole families of genes. And they found that snake genomes have been evolving at one of the fastest rates of any vertebrate.
The researchers think their studies will shed light on how other species, including our own, have evolved key characteristics. And they also suggest their findings could reveal insights into human health such as metabolic diseases, intestinal and stomach problems, Crohn’s disease, organ failure and heart disease.