Creature Feature: Ferrets

Haley Bridger, January 10th, 2011 | Filed under

Ferrets sneeze – just like we do. The way that ferrets shed viruses from their lungs is very similar to the way that humans do, which makes them a great model for studying respiratory illnesses like pneumonia, SARS, cystic fibrosis, and the flu. Researchers also use ferrets to study lung cancer, brain development, and reproductive biology. But until now, the ferret’s genome has remained a mystery. Decoding its DNA – especially regions involved in the immune system – could help researchers better understand respiratory diseases and could help scientists develop better treatments and preventions. Last year, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) began funding a project to sequence the ferret genome, and genome sequencing is currently underway at the Broad Institute.

In December, a group of ferret researchers from across the United States met at the Broad Institute to talk about the ferret genome project. Broad researchers have helped sequence other important model organisms like the mouse (scientists use mice to model a variety of diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, and diabetes, but the ferret is a more accurate model for diseases that affect tissue in the lungs) and other organisms from across all four branches of the mammalian tree of life. So far, Broad researchers in the Genome Sequencing and Analysis Program have sequenced the genomes of more than 20 mammals as well as a variety of other vertebrates and microorganisms.

“Every one of the organisms we sequence has a community of researchers who care about it,” says Broad research scientist Jessica Alföldi. These research communities are often invited to the Broad Institute before the organism’s genome has been completed. At the ferret community meeting, Broad researchers and ferret researchers joined together to talk about some of the challenges of sequencing the ferret genome and the insights that they might glean once the project is completed. The guests were then invited on a tour of the Broad’s sequencing center and listened attentively as Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, scientific director of vertebrate genome biology, explained efforts that are currently underway to sequence a variety of organisms. Broad researchers consulted the scientific community to find out what additional genomic resources they can provide to help the scientists with their research, and members of the ferret community offered input and shared their knowledge about the ferret’s biology.

“That’s something we pride ourselves on,” says Jessica. “We could just sequence the genome and put it out in a public database – which we do – but we also really try to engage the community that knows this organism best.”