The first full study of a snake's genome has revealed the Burmese python to be one of the most evolutionarily advanced creatures on Earth, international researchers said Monday.
The findings shed new light on how the biggest snake in the world has survived and thrived, and may offer new inroads to treating human diseases, said the research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Snakes appear to have functionally evolved much more than other species," said principal investigator David Pollock, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Of particular interest to scientists is just how the southeast Asian native is able to eat creatures as large as the snake itself.
Not only can its head and jaw open wide enough to envelope a meal the size of a deer, the snake's organs supersize themselves and go into overdrive to speedily digest the animal before it rots.
In the space of a day or two, the snake's heart, small intestine, liver and kidneys increase in size, ranging from a third larger than before to double the pre-feast size.
"Genes that were fully off are now full on," said Pollock.
Once the meal is digested, the organs shrink back to normal size.
An analysis of the Burmese python's genome suggests that a complex interplay between gene expression, protein adaptation and changes in the genome structure allows these snakes to do what others with the same genes cannot.
Understanding how the snake's body orchestrates such major changes in key organs could offer a new understanding of the mechanisms behind human conditions such as organ failure, ulcers, metabolic disorders and more, said co-author Stephen Secor.
"The Burmese python has an amazing physiology," said Secor, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Alabama.
"With its genome in hand, we can now explore the many untapped molecular mechanisms it uses to dramatically increase metabolic rate, to shut down acid production, to improve intestinal function, and to rapidly increase the size of its heart, intestine, pancreas, liver, and kidneys."
The Burmese python genome study was led by Todd Castoe, an assistant professor of biology at The University of Texas at Arlington College of Science, and included 38 co-authors from four countries.
It is described in PNAS along with the genome of the king cobra.