The Vancouver Aquarium says for the first time, scientists have sequenced the genome of the beluga whale.
The research was completed using genetic material Qila and Aurora, the two belugas who died at the facility last year.
The project was funded by Genome BC and completed by BC Cancer’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre (GSC). The results were published Monday in the scientific journal Genes.
Vancouver Aquarium head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena said the information gleaned from the mother and daughter beluga could go a long way to protecting future cetaceans.
“Once you know the template, the model, the sort of fingerprints of how these animals are put together that means it’s easier to investigate things like pathogens and exposure.”
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Indeed, researchers only got the idea to sequence the belugas’ genome when the pair fell ill last fall.
Dr. Steven Jones with the GSC suggested that studying the pair’s DNA could help veterinarians determine what was making them sick.
Researchers eventually determined that a toxin was responsible for the whales’ deaths, after ruling out a virus or bacteria. The exact substance that killed the pair remains unknown.
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While the belugas couldn’t be saved, researchers said their deaths have advanced the scientific understanding of their species.
“We had a lot of beluga DNA and we realized we had enough to sequence the complete beluga genome,” said Dr. Jones in a statement.
“We think it’s one of the most complete mammalian genomes in the scientific world. It will ultimately provide us with many tools to study beluga whales.”
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In November, Chester the false killer whale died at the aquarium, however this time veterinarians believe it was caused by a bacterial infection.
Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, is now the last cetacean currently living at the Aquarium — though the facility owns several belugas on breeding loan to U.S. facilities.
In May, the Vancouver Park Board approved a motion banning the aquarium from bringing any new cetaceans to its Stanley Park facility.