OSU researchers sequence full beaver genome

Filbert, a 5-year-old beaver, swims at his home in the Oregon Zoo. Oregon State University researchers sequenced a full beaver genome using DNA derived from Filbert.

Jamie Chin News Contributor

Provides knowledge, information to help ecosystems and nature

A full beaver genome has been sequenced at Oregon State University using DNA derived from a beaver at the Oregon Zoo after a little more than a year of fundraising and work.

The Beaver Genome Project was first announced in September 2015, with a crowdfunding campaign launched in order to generate funds for the project. This crowdfunding project was led by Jeannine Cropley, assistant to the director of the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing at OSU. 

“We were able to raise $20,000 from the crowdfunding project,” Cropley said. “These were all from small donations paying in increments of around $50 or $100, and there were no significantly large donors. We got the equivalent of the other $10,000 from a company, Illumina Inc. They donated all the sequencing parts needed for this project.” 

The crowdfunding project brought in a lot of publicity when the project was first introduced, which was necessary in order to raise enough funds for the project.

“I think a lot of it is school pride, with alumni wanting to support their beaver and whatnot,” Cropley said. “But it’s also due to the fact that this project is pretty cool; the beaver genome could help with a lot of scientific research.”

If it wasn’t for the help of many of the younger participants of the Beaver Genome Project, the crowdfunding campaign wouldn’t have reached out to the public as much as it did, according to Cropley. They were taught to use social media platforms, such as Twitter.

This beaver genome project was inspired by previous sequencing of genomes, including the well-known Human Genome Project, in which all the genes of human beings were completely mapped and understood. In the same way, the beaver genome was sequenced by collecting the complete set of DNA of a beaver. The goal is to uncover knowledge about beavers that could tie directly to helping ecosystems and nature, according to Brent Kronmiller, the bioinformatics scientist of CGRB.

“There was a period of time when beavers were almost extinct due to people hunting (them) for their fur, but fortunately they were rehabilitated and are adapting back to normal,” Kronmiller said. “We really want to focus on a couple things, including how beavers are able to build dams, how they are a keystone species in terms of modifying ecosystems. Beavers can be a crucial part to learning more about survival within animals.” 

While the crowdfunding project went on from September through October 2015, there were many other components necessary to complete the overall project. The DNA was first derived from Filbert, a beaver at the Oregon Zoo. 

“There are many steps,” Kronmiller said. “First, we had to sequence the DNA and record the giga basepairs received from it. This didn’t take that long, maybe a couple weeks. But then we also had to assemble a genome draft, collect RNA samples, which can take a while because we have to do many trials in order to be precise. There’s a whole process involved, and afterwards we have to create presentations and compile all the data together.” 

Other than the many involved in the crowdfunding campaign, there were also 20 others involved in the actual research and scientific investigations tied to the project. Adelaide Rhodes, an undergraduate researcher, represents one of the many.

“Genomes are an extremely interesting topic to me, so being a part of this project is extremely fulfilling,” Rhodes said. “Although this project took a long time to complete, I’ve learned so much from it, all the way from DNA sequencing to acquiring tissues. There were a lot of us part of this project, and I think we were all important in making this project complete.” 

The beaver genome project was finished by the beginning of January, and received its first accolades at the 25th annual Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego.

“This is a really big conference in which many, many genomic scientists gather around to talk about their findings in genome research,” Kronmiller said. “It was rewarding that we were able to be a part of it this year and provide our own presentations about the beaver species.” 

This project is special, not just because it’s the first beaver genome to be sequenced, according to Rhodes.

“Oregon State University represents the first Pac-12 university to sequence their mascot’s genome, which is pretty cool,” Rhodes said. “There’s a lot of school spirit involved in this, and as we continue to research, more publicity will be coming along the way.”

Now that the project is complete, scientists at Oregon State University can use the full genome to conduct research. Because the research is so new, many questions have yet to be answered.

“All of our research is still pretty new, but essentially there are multitudes of things we can test using this new genome,” Kronmiller said. “We’re looking for potential genes to see how the beaver adapts to its unique lifestyle. We’re looking for relations between beavers and other animals and comparing their characteristics. We’ve found that the kangaroo rat is most closely related to the beaver, out of the 19 species that we compared.” 

Because the DNA samples were collected from just one beaver, Filbert, there may be a few raw factors that are unaccounted for. 

“I’m not too familiar with the specific characteristics and personality traits of Filbert,” Rhodes said. “But depending on what kind of traits Filbert may have, the genome may not represent all beavers the same way.” 

All of the completed research will be available online, according to Cropley. 

“We’re not trying to make any money from this,” Cropley said. “There are websites and databases in which results from studies are posted, and there’s one specifically for genomic research. These will all be made public and available for everyone to see.” 

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