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Platypus’ DNA is what makes it so weird!

by Madonna Watts D'Souza
Platypus’ DNA is what makes it so weird!

April 15, 2021

Researchers have finally completed the genome sequencing of the very mysterious and weird animal- the Platypus. It's a combination of three animal subkingdoms- Birds, Reptiles, and Mammals!

As kids, we all heard about the most versatile and mischievous cartoon character in Phineas and Ferb’s ‘Perry, the Platypus’. After all, he was the antithesis as “Agent P” for OWCA (the Organization Without a Cool Acronym) to defeat “Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz’s” evil schemes, a mad scientist primarily driven by a need to assert his evilness.

So, after witnessing the characteristic bravery of the platypus on TV and seeing many wide-ranging Discovery channel series on the lives of platypuses, we wondered indeed- why in the world are platypuses so weird? Perry, the Platypus, may have had special detective skills, but it didn’t stop the world from being amazed by the qualities that real-life platypuses possess.

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Platypus
Platypus swimming around in a lake.

The weirdly flat-looking animal’s duck-bill, skin that sweats milk, and reproductive method in laying eggs as a mammal has certainly intrigued scientists for years. And finally, the scientists have entirely mapped the animal’s genome to find out that the platypus cannot be categorized as any one animalia classification species, but is instead a combination of birds, reptiles, and mammals.

This discovery truly makes one wonder- what a fantastic (or insanely weird) time to exist!

How Strange is a Platypus?

Well, for starters, it has TEN sex chromosomes! The strange animal has a full display of ten sex chromosomes. Scientifically known as Ornithorhynchus Anatinus, the platypuses are the sole representatives of their family and genus. Simultaneously, their ancestors and other similar relatives can only be observed and studied through fossils. 

Additionally, platypuses are entirely restricted to Eastern Australia and the tiny island of Tasmania. Sadly, like numerous endangered animals, the semi-aquatic animal is disappearing from the face of the earth. Researchers were curious about the platypus’ sex chromosomes. Platypuses are the only animals with ten sex chromosomes among the animals discovered so far. They have 5X and 5Y chromosomes in the shape of a ring. 

After comparing these chromosomes to mammals’ genomes like humans, possums, Tasmanian devils, birds like chickens, and reptiles like lizards, researchers discovered that the animal’s sex chromosomes are quite similar to their bird ancestry rather than mammals and reptiles.

 

Platypus genes hold secrets of our evolution
Platypus genes hold secrets of our evolution

Biological Life of a Platypus

One might not expect it from platypuses given their weird way of doing almost everything, but a platypus, after its offsprings hatch from the eggs, nurses them with milk. This is quite similar to Therian mammals (animals that give birth to their young ones and nurse them with milk). 

So, the logical question that now arises is – what type of animal is a platypus? Well, there are three types of mammals: marsupials, placentals, and  monotremes.

Marsupials are animals who carry their offsprings in a pouch-like organ. Example: Kangaroos, Wallabies, etc.

Placentals are mammals that nurse their offsprings with a particular temporary organ, known as the placenta. Example: Dogs, Cats, Humans, etc.

Monotremes are mammals that lay eggs to give birth, and after their babies, the hatch will nurse them with milk. Example: echidnas and platypuses.

Close Affnity to Monotremes

Monotremes are a primitive group of mammals, where they cannot give birth to their offsprings, but since their genomes possess most of the lactation genes like the therian mammals, they can nurse their babies with milk. The protein Casein is found in their milk. Hence, genes that help encode specific proteins like Casein are found in monotremes.

However, monotremes mysteriously also have extra caseins whose use is yet to be discovered. Hence, their milk composition is quite similar to milch animals and even humans. Scientists reckon that platypuses aren’t as dependent on the proteins present in their egg yolks as birds and other reptiles are. Hence, they feed their young ones with the lactation glands present on their skin.

Biological Genera of Birds and Platypuses

Also known as vitellogenin genes, platypus’s genome sequencing revelations support the same theory. While birds and reptiles have three genes responsible for encoding their vital egg yolk proteins, the platypus has let go of most of these genes around 130 million years ago.

To put it into comparison, to date, chickens have all three of the egg yolk protein genes intact, platypuses have only one utterly functional copy of the gene left, and humans have zero of these genes within their DNA.

Scool Buzz Genome of Platypus and other species
Genome mapping of Platypus and other species that have a common ancestor Amniotes.

The platypuses could connect links for several species, including humans, due to their genome sequencing and the infamous duck face, mammary glands, egg-laying, shockingly evil, and surreal looking creature. This could serve as an explanation for our evolutionary history as well.

It informs us that milk production in all extant mammal species has been developed through the same set of genes derived from a common ancestor that lived more than 170 million years ago, alongside the early dinosaurs in the Jurassic period.

- Guojie Zhang, Professor, Biology Department, University of Copenhagen Tweet

And there you have it! The platypus is one of the most critical living fossils out there, which could hold the key to developing the animal kingdom’s evolution. In captivity, these animals can live up to 17 years, while in the wild, they can live up to 25 years. However, this unusual animal is threatened to local extinction due to Climate Change, waterway damages and deforestation.

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