First genetic study on the hibernation of primates in their natural environment

The IMIM’s research group on Evolutionary Genomics has identified which genes participate (change their expression) in the state of hibernation of hairy-eared dwarf lemurs, which belong to the only group of primates that has the capacity to hibernate. It is precisely in their tails that these small mammals store the fat that enables them to survive through the months of scarcity and that they will use as fuel during hibernation. Hibernation is a response to a lack of resources that we normally associate with winter, but it may occur in other conditions of scarcity such as desert  areas or, for example, during the dry period in Madagascar.

According to the researchers: “The genes that participate in hibernation are present in nearly all mammals, including human beings. It is a question of when and how they are expressed that makes the phenomenon of hibernation possible. Since the lemur is a primate, its genes are relatively similar to the human version."

Darf lemur of the study. Image from MUSINGS OF A JUNGLE QUEEN blog of Dr. Sheena (Faherty) Scruggs

The genes that participate in hibernation are present in nearly all mammals, including human beings. Knowing about how they function could be important for the field of Medicine

Hibernation can be conceived as a series of modules of genes that work as a group. There is one module that makes it possible to survive based on fats instead of carbohydrates, another that ensures that the muscles do not atrophy during these months and even a group of genes in charge of “reviving” individuals and returning them to a normal state. The study of hibernation could have important applications in medicine, for example, controlled hypothermia could be used in surgical operations, or to try to understand how to regenerate lost neuronal connections, a natural process in hibernating animals after each hibernation cycle. Looking still a little further, induced hibernation could even make long-term space travel possible, with barely any need to eat food.

Dwarf lemurs have been the subject of few studies and their genome has not yet been sequenced. The first step of the researchers was to reconstruct the transcriptome, which is the set of sequences of all the genes that are expressed in any of the cells studied. The  pieces that they had were millions of small bits of these sequences. ”It was as if we wanted to reconstruct a copy of our favourite book from millions of words or  short phrases originating from hundreds of copies of the same book cut up into small pieces. This is a  difficult task and it requires powerful computers, which search for the phrases that are superimposed on each other until the whole book has been reconstructed. Once this was achieved, we were capable of identifying several hundred genes that change their expression in adipose tissue during hibernation and analysing them in greater detail” the researchers explain.

This type of study raises the visibility of unique species such as this one and serve to underline how necessary it is to preserve our biodiversity.


Reference article

Faherty SL, Villanueva-Cañas JL, Blanco MB, Albà MM, Yoder AD. Transcriptomics in the wild: hibernation physiology in free-ranging dwarf lemurs. Mol Ecol 2018;27(3): 709-722.



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