Penguins: Their mysterious evolution

  (photo credit: SHUTTERSTOCK)
(photo credit: SHUTTERSTOCK)

As the charismatic stars of March of the Penguins and Happy Feet, penguins captured our imagination and our hearts. Yet their lifestyle and existence also pose big questions for scientists, questions that BGI group seek to answer.

The impact humanity is having around the world is impossible to deny. Even a cursory look at images from the international space station reveals our presence in nearly every corner of the globe. While this is a testament to our ingenuity and persistence as a species, humanity’s spread across the continents has, unfortunately, been paralleled by a rapid decrease in biodiversity.  

With the ambitious aim to sequence the DNA of all life on Earth in 10 years, the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) is the kind of initiative we desperately need if we are to better protect and preserve our global commons.  

Launched in 2018 and set to finish in 2028, the EBP will attempt to answer some fundamental questions in biology and evolution. Take, for example, the mysterious evolution of penguins. 

360 million years ago, the ancestors of terrestrial vertebrates evolved from sea creatures to move on to the land, but at some point, penguins returned to the seas – how and why did that happen? How did the species adjust to survive in extreme geographic conditions of the Antarctic? Recent genomics research has transformed our understanding of how such dramatic evolution happened.

A team of international researchers, co-led by BGI Group, recently completed the first ever comprehensive genetic study of extinct and extant penguin species. The study, published in Nature Communications, allowed scientists to reconstruct more than 60 million years of penguin evolutionary history – and was a direct and tangible outcome of the EBP. 

Findings from the study showed that penguin evolution was driven by the global climate swinging between cold and warm periods. These adaptations have allowed the flightless birds to colonise some of the most extreme environments on Earth. 

But how could researching penguin evolution help human beings? Each species on Earth depends on other species for their survival, and humans are no different. Researching the natural world has facilitated some surprising medical and technological discoveries – discoveries that would have been impossible if researchers were unable to study natural phenomena. 

For example, research into spider venom has shown promise in treating epilepsy and managing pain or even preventing the damage caused by a heart attack. So, preserving animals and their habitats is crucial if scientists are to continue to develop novel approaches to the challenges we face. Simply put, it’s infinitely easier to study species if they still exist. 

The penguin study revealed a suite of genes that likely underpin the highly specialised adaptations seen in penguins today, including those related to thermoregulation, oxygenation, diving, vision, diet, immunity, and body size. Each of these findings could benefit humanity, whether that’s through better understanding of immune response or nutrition. 

The penguin study also revealed that emperor penguins, which breed during the cold Antarctic winter, have the highest evolutionary rate of all penguins – leading researchers to conclude that colder temperatures, together with past climate oscillations, may speed penguin evolution. 

Therefore, it can be inferred that, as global temperatures continue to rise, penguins and other cold-adapted fauna are uniquely vulnerable. With this knowledge in hand, our approaches to species and habitat preservation will (ideally) improve. 

We must stop the pace of wildlife extinctions – or face extinction itself. Biodiversity and healthy ecosystems are not only an important part of the solution to climate change but also good for the economy; biodiversity conservation is linked to poverty reduction and a loss of biodiversity leads to an increase in the spread of disease. 

The Earth’s biodiversity is in a precarious state. Our current ability to explore and understand the diversity and evolution of the species which call this planet home is severely constrained by the absence of high-quality genome sequences. Bolstering that understanding could lead to radical new approaches to growing a sustainable bioeconomy, saving species, repairing ecosystems and biodiversity, and even preventing future pandemics.

Genomic study might also reveal the route to new biofuels, novel drugs, and useful agricultural traits. Presenting biodiversity as a benefit to national economies, environment, and local cultures should help governments take biodiversity issues more seriously. Ending Earth’s sixth great extinction event will take more than just DNA sequences, but the EBP is a step to the right direction.

This article was written in cooperation with Evan Arroyo