Big Data Saving the Axolotl

“Vicious axolotl claims another victim” Imgur

This past week I learned about the Mexican Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) from Doctor Ryan Woodcock at a Keene State College seminar and I came away with an entirely new understanding of genetic possibilities.  The Axolotl originates from what is now Mexico City, so as you may imagine the environment has changed a bit since the Axolotl originally adapted to the area.  The city take over of the swamp-like areas built for amphibians such as the axolotl has destroyed the axolotl population to the point that they are now extinct in the wild.  Thankfully in 1863, 34 axolotls were brought from Xochimilco to France.  The goal was to breed the axolotls, but that proved to be difficult for the French, but six axolotls (5 male 1 female), including one white male, were taken to another location in Europe where they were successfully bred.  While the other 28 axolotls died in wartime, descendants of the six were distributed to other parts of Europe and North America making these six axolotls the ancestors of every axolotl living today.

“Axolotl/Mexican Walking Fish” From Pets4homes

With such a limited amount of axolotls comes an extreme lack of diversity, which we know can increase chances of rare mutations and can weaken immune systems (Zoe Assaf).  So how is it possible that axolotls still exist today if they all derived from six individuals?  This is where big data comes into play, more specifically the software developed by Linkon Park Zoo scientists known as Poplink.  Poplink is a software that allows data of individuals to be tracked throughout their lifetime.  Any individual with known data was added into the software allowing for the creation hypothetical ancestral data.  This data helped scientists know how to breed the axolotl to maintain diversity.  By using mean kinship of individuals, 90% of diversity will be maintained over the next century by pairing rare individuals with other rare individuals and common individuals with other common individuals.

“Albino Tiger Salamander” By Bill Love

Of axolotls today, an average of 66% of an individuals genome is composed of the DNA from the six originals while 22% was brought in from wild Mexican axolotl, but oddly enough 6% of the genome resembles that of the albino tiger salamander.  The albino tiger salamander was originally bred with the axolotl in order to produce a subspecies of axolotl, but instead, descendants of the albino tiger overtook the population to the point that every axolotl today is related to the one individual female albino tiger salamander.  Not only does every axolotl have some albino tiger in it, the genes are scattered throughout the genome of all axolotls so a very large portion albino tiger DNA is split between all axolotls.  This means the percentage of albino tiger salamander may increase or decrease over time but because of researchers using poplink, the amount of albino tiger salamander can be managed in order to keep the axolotls in their purest form or increase diversity as much as possible.


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