Genetic variation allowed foxes to adapt to the Sahara

American scientists have found that the transfer of DNA from closely related species to the North African fox genome (a process also known as gene infiltration) promotes the adaptation of North African foxes to survival in the Sahara Desert. Research has revealed the genetic and physiological mechanisms by which life can be sustained in hot, arid environments. The study was published June 12 in Nature – Ecology and Evolution.

Fennec fox Image courtesy of Pixabay

Foxes include the Lushi and fennec foxes that live in the Sahara Desert, the largest hot desert on Earth. Unlike species that live in water-fed areas, the sand fox and fennec fox rarely lose water through the skin or breath, and the kidneys of the fennec fox also store water. The closest relative of the Lu’s sand fox, the red fox, occupies a variety of habitats in the Northern Hemisphere, and although the two live in different ecological environments, they intersect on the northern edge of the Sahara Desert.

Joana Rocha of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues combined genomic and physiological approaches to study the mechanisms of adaptation in the extremely hot Sahara Desert. The authors sequenced the complete genomes of 82 individuals, including four fox species that occupied the Sahara at different times: the Lu’s sand fox, the red fox, the fennec fox, and the blue fox. They found that the sand fox of Lu’s and a related species of the fennec fox share the same genomic region that contains genes selected for in desert settings to correlate with urine concentration during dehydration.

The researchers also found that a region of the genome of the sand fox infiltrated the genome of the red fox, which had recently spread to North America. They compared the physiological indicators of blood and urine of desert “special forces”, Lu’s sand fox and fennec fox, with red foxes from North Africa and East Asia, and found that desert “special forces” had a better ability to store water in the case of dehydration. This coincides with the characteristics of the selection of genes that play a role in non-renal dehydration and thermogenesis.

Rocha et al. believe that common genetic variation between different fox species living in deserts can help them adapt to environmental changes, such as those on the edge of deserts. (Source: Feng Weiwei, China Science News)

A close relative of the Lu’s sand fox is the red fox Image courtesy of Pixabay

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