opossums revealed and unravelled

The genome of the opossum has now been sequenced and this is a major accomplishment. However I bet some people are asking what silly nonsense scientists have been up to now? So perhaps a few facts about these furry creatures are in order.



  • Opossums (or possums) are marcupials, meaning that they are pouched animals that give birth to relatively immature young in comparison to other mammals.

  • In Australia and North America they are mostly looked upon kindly.
  • However in New Zealand we grow up knowing that they run rampant around our country, destroying our native trees and spreading disease in livestock. The number that you find run over by vehicles on the roads is testimony to their populous (estimated 20 per person).
  • So depending on where you reside, possums are either protected or disliked with a vengance. To illustrate the later, this is a very gruesome video, ‘possum killing spree’.
  • There is even a whole industry in possum fur products from New Zealand in an effort to control this pest. Its fur is incredibly soft so that is convenient.
  • So why sequence its genome? The entire sequence of DNA and proteins of any species (bacteria, plant, animal) can tell us a great detail about evolutionary relationships. The genomic study published in Nature recently reveals that there are a features in the DNA sequence of the opossum that tell us about the functional arrangement of mammalian genomes. So we are closer to pinpointing the genetic features that make us similar or different to other animals and understanding how we evolved.

    So even if you are dubious about the relevance of the opossum genome to everyday life in general, its still nice to know a little bit more about where we come from right?


    5 Responses to “opossums revealed and unravelled”

    1. 1 John May 22, 2007 at 3:40 pm

      Like the film. =)

      I heard about this genome on the radio the other day… not irrelevant if you have a spinal injury apparently. “…newborn opossums are remarkable in that they can heal complete transections of the spinal cord.” (from the study you linked to in Nature) Bring on some of that!

      I don’t think its the same as the aussie possum though.
      A distant cousin perhaps?

    2. 2 belle80 May 22, 2007 at 3:55 pm

      really! I didn’t know that, excellent.
      I think the Virgina opossum in the nature study is related to the Aussie/NZ possum.
      I’m a bit confused about the whole opossum vs possum thing actually, some sources of information say that opossums and possums are the same family. Can you shine some light on this?

    3. 3 John May 23, 2007 at 3:35 am

      Lol! Like an engineer would know that… My mother (biology graduate and Australian) used to tell me that they were different which I commented. However, im sure wikipedia knows. And here it is:

      Common Bushtailed Possum (found in Aussie/NZ):
      Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Infraclass, Order, Family, Genus, Binomial Name
      Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Marsupialia, Diprotodontia, Phalangeridae, vulpecular, Trichosurus vulpecular

      Common Ringtail Possum (found in Aussie/NZ):
      Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Marsupialia, Diprotodontia, Pseudocheiridae, Pseudocheirus, Pseudocheirus peregrinus

      Virginian Opossum (Genome recently sequenced):
      Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Marsupialia, Didelphimorphia, Didelphidae, Didelphis, Didelphis virginiana

      So they differ as far back as the order in the Infraclass (Marsupial). Not even cousins. How disappointing.

    4. 4 belle80 May 23, 2007 at 8:51 am

      thats sorted it out, thanks!

    5. 5 belle80 September 27, 2007 at 9:50 am

      A fellow researcher has recenty pointed out to me that it is misleading to suggest that we evolved from the possum. Rightly said! We have evolved simultaneously in our respective niches. So what I meant to allude to was the fact that genomic sequencing of marcupials such as the opossum give us more specific information about our genetic make up in relation to other animals. We are more acutely aware of the genes that are specific to mammalian origin, as opposed to non-mammalian and can therefore place gene function in a more meaningful context.

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