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Vulture genome unveils secrets of digesting a disgusting diet

Scientists have read the first Eurasian vulture genome, discovering the unique make-up that allows them to digest rotting food.

The results were published in the open access journal Genome Biology.

The study also proves that this species of Asian vulture is more closely related to the North American bald eagle than previously thought.

The cinereous vulture or black vulture, Aegypius monachus, is the largest bird of prey in Asia and plays a crucial role in the ecosystem by removing rotting carcasses.

But the creatures have had to evolved ingenious mechanisms to prevent infection by the bacteria in their diet.

Cosmos reported last year how probiotics played a role in protecting American New World vultures from the bacteria in carrion (see Microbes protect vultures from their toxic diet)

But the new research sheds light on the genetic variations involved in vultures’ immune processes and a genetic basis for how the birds might use the protective microbes.

“This is the first Old World vulture genome that has been reported, and we can see that the cinereous vulture has genetic signatures for resisting infection from eating decaying flesh,” says lead author Jong Bhak from Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, South Korea.

“Understanding the genetic make-up of extreme life forms has potential for improving human health. The immune system genes we’ve identified could be useful targets in humans for protection against infection.”

The team compared the vulture’s genome to that of the closely-related bald eagle. They found variations in genes related to the regulation of gastric acid secretion, consistent with their ability to digest carcasses.

Other genetic variations included several in genes associated with immunity and defence against microbial and viral infections.

These included genes that allow cells to take up micro-organisms and target pathogens for ingestion and elimination. The authors suggest that these may play a role in helping the vulture species combat pathogens encountered in their diet and complement the role of gastric secretion.

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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