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Oct 23, 2013 09:46 AM EDT

Genetic Diversity in Immune System of Giant Pandas Helps them Cope with Changing Environment

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The genetic diversity in the immune system of pandas is stronger than previously believed and it helps them adapt to climatic and environmental changes better than other endangered animals, according to a new study conducted by researchers from Zhejiang University in China. Researchers said that the pandas develop antigens depending on where they live.

According to Edinburgh Zoo, only 1,500 to 2,000 giant pandas remain in the wild today and are classified as 'endangered' by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 1990.

Researchers said that it is very important that animals posses genetic diversity otherwise even a single pathogen can destroy an entire population. They found that giant pandas are more genetically diverse than Bengal tigers, Namibian cheetahs and other endangered species.

Researchers arrived at the conclusion after collecting the genetic material from the blood, skin, and fecal material of 218 wild pandas from the six isolated mountain ranges in south-central China. Researchers then analyzed the histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes, which are part of the immune system of the giant panda.

The researchers chose this section of the genome because it is the only one that adapts to environment. Other parts of the genome remain standard across a species and are therefore not indicators of genetic diversity, CBS reports.

"The assumption is that a decrease in genetic variation and a lack of exchange between isolated populations increase the likelihood of extinction by reducing the population's ability to adapt to changing environments," the team wrote in a report that has been published in the journal BioMed Central.

Biologist Paul Hohenlohe, who was not involved with the study, said that this finding will now help conservationists protect the panda population and probably help increase its population.

"If you need to capture 10 pandas for a captive breeding program, then you choose those 10 to encompass the most diversity," Hohenlohe told LiveScience. "You can do that by getting them from multiple populations, or one population that has the most diversity."

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