Camels are known for their humps, which store fat and allow camels to survive long periods of time without food or water. But camels have also developed other traits like insulin resistance and salt tolerance to help them feel more at home in extreme environments. Scientists are now working to determine what these adaptations look like on the genetic level, and they hope their results, published in Nature Communications this week, may eventually shed some light on metabolism-related diseases in humans, too.
The dwindling global population of wild bactrian camels, which now number between 730 and 880 individuals, resides in the Gobi desert of northwestern China and southwestern Mongolia. The domestic relatives of this critically endangered species have long been used as a reliable form of transportation in the region.
In order to deal with the dramatic swings in temperature in desert environments, bactrian camels have developed some unique adaptations. Bactrian camels have blood sugar levels twice as high as other cud-chewing creatures, and their daily salt intake is eight times greater than that of a typical cow or sheep. The really impressive part is that the camels don’t develop high blood pressure or diabetes in the process.
These adaptations have been studied for decades, but what made this particular study unique was that researchers were looking at the adaptations on a genetic rather than physiological level. Researchers mapped the genomes of both wild and domestic bactrian camels, and analyzed the divergence of the two genomes over time. According to their results, many of the camels’ genetic adaptations have occurred rapidly, as far as evolutionary adaptations go.
The researchers also identified the genes and pathways associated with the camel’s unique ability to store and produce energy, the first step to better understanding the genetic mechanisms that have allowed the camels to thrive in the desert. By studying the genetic pathways that allow camels to avoid metabolism-related diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, the researchers hope their findings will also provide some cross0ver into the realm of human medicine by improving their genetic understanding of these conditions in people.
Camel image via Shutterstock