Panda paradox: Which came first, a taste for bamboo or a distaste for meat?

This post contributed by Monica Kanojia, Administrative Assistant/Governance for ESA While a vegetarian lifestyle is a choice made by omnivorous humans, the panda population may have been forced to convert  to a vegetarian diet between 2 and 7 million years ago to ensure survival. The preference for bamboo is unusual for pandasbecause they are classified as carnivores  even though their diet is 99% bamboo. Even more unusual is the fact that their digestive system is unable to process cellulose, the major component of plant cell walls. According to research published in Nature, the bamboo diet is both influenced by genetics, and it depends on the digestive microbes present in the panda gut. Everything from what we eat, to what we taste, to how we eat is determined by our genetics. Umami—the basic taste associated with an amino acid common in protein heavy foods like meat—is sensed through the T1R gene family in carnivores. But in pandas, the T1R gene family has experienced mutations causing the inactivation of the T1R1 gene, making it a pseudogene. Pseudogenes have either lost protein coding ability or are no longer expressed in the cell. Ruiqiang Li and the team who sequenced the genome found that the malfunction of the T1R1 gene occurred relatively recently in the panda lineage: Estimated loss was about 4.2 million years ago. The malfunction of the umami taste receptor may explain why pandas have a preference for bamboo versus meat. Gene mutations are random and can change the habits of an organism, affecting its entire existence. In the case of the pandas, it changed the way pandas perceived meat. Despite the loss of taste for meat the digestive system of the pandas remained able to process it because all the enzymes required to were still present in their system. The ability to process plant material on the other hand was not natural. According to Li et al.’s research pandas do not have the necessary enzymes to digest bamboo, hinting at the idea that their ability to do so is dependent upon their gut microbes. Luckily for the endangered pandas, according to a molecular analysis conducted by Li and his colleagues, they have a very high rate of genetic variation in spite of their low population numbers. The abundance of some genetic changes within the gene pool can be reduced by natural selection, while other “more favorable” mutations may accumulate and result in adaptive changes; this may be part of the reason why the panda population converted from meat eaters to plant eaters as well. Logically, it would go as follows: The panda population experienced a mutation affecting taste buds which...

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Pandas: Let ’em die?

A Reuters article yesterday proclaimed that BBC television naturalist and conservationist Chris Packham thinks that scientists are wasting their time on the conservation efforts devoted to giant pandas. Pandas have reached “an evolutionary cul-de-sac,” he says, and they’re destined to die out because of their own habits. It’s true that pandas have a highly specialized lifestyle: they need to eat about 25 pounds per day of just one plant, bamboo, to survive, and their size and morphological adaptations make them restricted to their high-mountain habitats in China. Add that the fact that they are difficult to breed in captivity and you have a conservation nightmare. Packham’s claim is one that has been bandied about by everyone from evolutionary biologists to bleeding-heart animal lovers. Has the panda, through unhappy chance, come to a stopping point in its success as a species? Unable to shift their diet or move to a new geographic area, are they destined to peter out of their own accord like so many other ancient mammals before them? While scientists agree that fate has not been particularly kind to the pandas, molecular studies also show a tight correlation between the advent of human civilization and the beginning of panda decline. What’s more, pandas used to occupy lowland areas, but have been driven out by human activities. Even the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which destroyed nearly a quarter of panda habitat, was so devastating to pandas because of its interaction with developed areas.  Even if history has been unkind to pandas, humans have been at least as unkind. I welcome your thoughts.  Is it our fault that pandas are a dying species? And whether or not we’re to blame, should we continue pouring money into their...

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