Newly sequenced ferret genome reveals clues to human lung diseases

Black-footed ferret--Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Ferrets are a particularly good model for many human lung diseases, not the least of which is influenza, which infects the animals and spreads among them much like it does in people. Now scientists who specialize in respiratory disorders have a new tool: a draft ferret genome created by an international team of researchers.

The University of Washington in Seattle and the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led the team effort, which was funded by the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The team used a technique called transcriptome analysis, which allowed them to identify all the RNA produced from areas of the genome that are being activated at specific times. That, in turn, made it possible for them to study how ferret cells respond when they are challenged by influenza or cystic fibrosis. Their work was featured in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Using animal models of human lung diseases, the researchers were able to track disease trajectories using the transcriptome information generated from the ferret genome. For example, they discovered that in cystic fibrosis, changes in the expression of genes occur on the first day of life and grow over the next two weeks.

"We found that there are transcriptional changes from day one, right out-of-the-gate, and many of the changes are very similar to those seen in humans," Xinxia Peng, lead author on the study, said in a University of Washington press release. "The findings suggest that some of the disease processes responsible for the lung damage seen in cystic fibrosis begin very early in life."

The ferret genome could prove useful beyond flu and cystic fibrosis. The researchers believe it could also add to the understanding of many other diseases, including cardiac disorders and diabetes.

- here's the press release
- access the Nature Biotechnology article here