Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Scientists decode turtle's DNA

Could lead to medical breakthroughs to help humans

  • Print

VANCOUVER -- Scientists have decoded the DNA of the Western painted turtle, and hope unravelling the mystery of the reptiles may lead to medical breakthroughs for humans.

They are the most abundant turtle in North America, with a northernmost range from Ontario west to British Columbia, where they are listed as endangered on the Pacific Coast and of special concern in the rest of the province.

The shelled reptile, named for the bright yellow and red stripes that adorn its body, is a freshwater species that can freeze solid and return to life when thawed.

It can also hold its breath for up to four days at room temperature without suffering oxygen deprivation and up to four months when hibernating, said Brad Shaffer of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and one of the authors of the study published in the latest edition of the journal Genome Biology.

"Those are fascinating ecological, physiological features that have evolved in turtles... so as a biologist those are fascinating things to learn more about the genes that allow them to do that," Shaffer said.

Shaffer and his colleagues hope solving the DNA puzzle may one day lead to innovations in treating hypothermia, frostbite, heart attacks or strokes.

The DNA confirmed for scientists the turtles have evolved at a turtle's pace, and have in fact changed little in design over the past 210 million years.

"Turtles are nothing short of an enigma," Richard K. Wilson, director of Washington University's Genome Institute and one of the authors, said in a statement.

"We could learn a lot from them."

In addition to their ability to freeze and thaw without suffering organ or tissue damage, they have longevity and continue to reproduce at advanced ages, he said.

Western painted turtles can live for more than 40 years, while other species of turtle live well over a century. Females can grow up to 25 centimetres long, while males grow up to 17 cm.

The DNA information -- funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health in the United States -- is being shared with 59 scientists around the world, including three researchers at UBC, Carlton and the University of Toronto for further study.

While Western painted turtles have fared well east of the Rocky Mountains, they are listed on the federal Species At Risk registry as a species of special concern in the Rocky Mountain area and west to the B.C. Interior.

They are listed as endangered in the coastal area that includes Vancouver Island, the Sunshine Coast, Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley because of the loss of wetlands and pace of urban development.

"Roads are a big threat. The female leaves the pond and tries to find a very open, sunny area to lay her eggs and often that means crossing a road," said Purnima Govindarajulu, a provincial government biologist and spokeswoman for its B.C. Frogwatch program.

"A turtle being a turtle, they're not moving very quickly, so they're very susceptible to being killed on the road."

The provincial government has several programs aimed at saving the turtles, including creating nesting beaches so they don't have to cross roads.

There is also a genetic study being conducted at UBC Okanagan, and students from Thompson Rivers University are studying the effects of hydro dams on the reptiles.

There are 330 turtle species, and about half are considered threatened due largely to their popularity as a food dish in Asia, where lore says eating turtles promotes good health and long life.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 A21

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Jets vs. Ducks Game 2 promo

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Gardening Column- Assiniboine Park English Garden. July 19, 2002.
  • Winnipeg’s best friend the dragon fly takes a break at English Gardens in Assiniboine Park Wednesday- A dragon fly can eat  food equal to its own weight in 30 minutes-Standup photo- June 13, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Do you agree with the sale of the Canadian Wheat Board to foreign companies?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google