Breathing new life into 'living fossil'

Breathing new life into 'living fossil'

Genome-hunter Byrappa Venkatesh may not look the part, dressed neatly in a striped polo tee and sitting behind his desk at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Buona Vista.

But he has the heart of Victorian explorers of old - it is the gleam in his eyes that gives him away as he begins to talk.

He offers up tales of international fish expeditions - of freezing rivers in Hokkaido, Japan, where he has waded waist-deep to find lampreys - eel-like fish that resemble devilish monsters. He has also tracked elephant sharks in rough Australian waters and searched for eels in Europe.

Getting hold of blood samples from exotic fish has all been part of his quest to sequence their genomes for science, and to delve into the secrets their genes hold.

But of all the locations he has visited, it is a quiet hotel lobby in Changi Village here that sticks out most in his memory, he revealed.

It was there in 2000 that he finally got his hands on the most precious DNA of all: a sample of tissue from the coelacanth - a rare, ancient fish long thought extinct till it was found in 1938 off the South African coast.

Like lungfish - the other surviving lineage of lobe-finned fish - coelacanths are actually more closely related to humans and other mammals than to ray-finned fishes such as tuna and trout.

Ancient lobe fins were the first vertebrates to move from water onto land 395 million years ago, and the coelacanth genome is expected to reveal much about the origins of tetrapods, the evolutionary line that gave rise to amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

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