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Science for All Seasons: Clarity from comparison: How other animals' genomes illuminate our own

The human genome is huge — more than three billion As, Cs, Ts, and Gs strung together and packaged into 23 chromosomes. But even with the biotech advances of the last 20 years, its workings remain mostly a mystery.

The Zoonomia Project is comparing hundreds of species' genomes to investigate genome function. We are finding that some parts of the genome are so important that they are identical among species separated by millions of years of evolution, while others are uniquely human. By discovering the genomic secrets of species that perform incredible feats of physiology — such as hibernating ground squirrels that go months without eating, and deep-diving seals that endure minutes without breathing — we are using evolutionary history to help inform the next generation of therapeutics.

Genome biologists Elinor Karlsson and Diane Genereux describe how comparative genomics is shaping our understanding of human health and, in the process, supporting efforts to protect species at risk of extinction.