Zoos helped in uncovering the mysteries of the dragon

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  12. 08. 2019

The entire genome of the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo dragon, is now available at the US National Center for Biotechnology Information under access number SJPD00000000. An article on how it was read and analyzed was published in the August issue of Nature Ecology & Evolution by a thirty-member scientific team, which included six researchers from Czech institutions, including two from Prague Zoo. The team worked exclusively with samples obtained from animals kept in zoos. Thanks to this research, which took eight years, it was possible to shed light on some of the secrets of “Komodo dragons” and, in my opinion, to further attest to their uniqueness.

Photo: Petr Velenský, Prague Zoo Photo: Petr Velenský, Prague Zoo

In particular, modifications of several genes involved in mitochondrial function, which control the production of energy and the functioning of the heart and muscles, have been revealed in the Komodo dragon. This explains why the lizard’s metabolism approaches that of mammals and why it can do such incredible feats for a reptile. Furthermore, it was discovered that the Komodo dragon has a surprisingly large number of genes that are involved in a sophisticated sensory system. Thanks to this, the dragon can easily pick up hormones and pheromones and therefore very effectively search for and hunt down its prey. Finally, it turned out that – in the words of Prof. Lukáš Kratochvíl from the Faculty of Science, Charles University – “during its evolution it jiggled with genes for blood clotting, perhaps to protect itself from its own venom, which causes bleeding”.

These and other findings not only contribute to broadening our knowledge of the Komodo dragon and the various evolutionary contexts, but can also be of great biomedical significance. It is no coincidence that the research was led by the director of the San Francisco Institute for Cardiovascular Research, Dr Benoit G. Bruneau.

However, reading and analyzing the Komodo dragon’s genome was only one of a series of research projects that Prague Zoo and its staff participated in. This research would have been difficult or even impossible to do without keeping animals in captivity. And while discussing the Komodo dragon – six months ago a purely “Czech” study was published in the scientific journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, which showed that the lizard’s sex chromosomes originated at the time of the dinosaurs, which made it far easier to sex them from a drop of blood. This is very important for breeders and for conservation and research work in the field.

By cooperating on research or being directly involved in it, we meet one of the reasons for the existence of zoos. Remember this when you watch the dramatic feeding of the Komodo dragons in our Indonesian Jungle pavilion. After all, figuring out how to feed them properly was also a science – but that is a topic for another Zooblog.

Photo: Petr Hamerník, Prague ZooPhoto: Petr Hamerník, Prague Zoo

Published in the Czech daily MF Dnes.