Filbert, a four-year-old beaver born and raised at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, will be the first of his species to have his complete genome sequenced.
Researchers at Oregon State University, whose mascot is the beaver, are planning to analyze a complete set of Filbert’s DNA in order to improve their understanding of how the continent’s largest rodent fills its role as an ecosystem engineer.
Filbert’s genetic material will be retrieved from a blood sample that was taken during a routine annual physical in August. While determining the actual structure of the DNA will take only a few days, researchers will spend months analyzing the chemical building blocks, known as base pairs, which comprise all genes and other parts of the genome.
By understanding what genes are present and how they function, scientists will gain insight into beaver populations, disease and where the animal sits on the tree of life. The oldest evidence of beaver in North America is a pair of teeth, estimated to be 7 million years old, found in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon.
“Sequencing all of the beaver’s DNA will improve our understanding of the entire beaver species, including their amazing engineering and dietary feats and their contributions to stream and forest ecosystems,” said Brett Tyler, director of Oregon State’s Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing, which will conduct the study.
Brent Kronmiller, a faculty research assistant in the center and member of the research team, noted that sequencing the beaver will help scientists address deep questions about the animal. “What are their closest relatives?” he said. “What is the population structure of Northwest beavers? How are they able to digest wood?”
Beavers are distinctive for their orange teeth that enable them to relentlessly chew on trees and for their dam-building activities that shape habitats across the continent. Scientists have estimated that as many as 200 million beavers ranged across North America before European settlement. By the mid-19th century, the animals had been removed from many areas. Some populations have rebounded, and it’s estimated that North America is now home to 10 to 15 million beavers.
The Beaver Genome Project also aims to make Oregon State the first Pac-12 Conference university to sequence its school mascot.