Sky-high blood glucose levels, a diet loaded with salt and a tendency to pack away fat sounds like a recipe for a health disaster in a human. But in a Bactrian camel, these are adaptations that may help it survive in some of the driest, coldest and highest regions of the world. Researchers in Mongolia and China have begun to unravel the genomic peculiarities behind the physiological tricks that camels use to survive in the harshest of conditions. In a paper published today in Nature Communications, the scientists describe the draft genomes of wild and domesticated Bactrian camels1. When they first explore a new genome, geneticists are most interested in the ‘rapidly evolving’ sections. These hot zones of activity typically contain genes that define the species, coding for the characteristics that set it apart from its closest relatives. “We found that many genes related to metabolism are under accelerated evolution in the camel, compared with other even-toed ungulates such as cattle,” says Yixue Li, director of the Shanghai Center for Bioinformation Technology in China and a co-author of the paper.
…The work shows that camels can withstand massive blood glucose levels owing in part to changes in genes that are linked to type II diabetes in humans. The Bactrians' rapidly evolving genes include some that regulate insulin signalling pathways, the authors explain. A closer study of how camels respond to insulin may help to unravel how insulin regulation and diabetes work in humans. “I’m very interested in the glucose story,” says Brian Dalrymple, a computational biologist at the Queensland Bioscience Precinct in Brisbane, Australia.