A polar bear's genes are specially adapted to life in the Arctic.

© Steven C. Amstrup/Étude géologique des Etats-Unis

2/20/2014 1:56:02 PM

How Do Polar Bears Stay Warm? Research Finds an Answer in their Genes

What makes a polar bear a polar bear? Is it the colorless fur? Black tongue? A propensity for eating seals? Turns out, it has to do with hibernation, or the lack of hibernation.

Other bears hibernate in the winter, but for polar bears, winter means eating. (Pregnant females den in the fall.) Summer is a time of fasting, but polar bears stay awake through the whole year, whether there is food available or not.

In a new study, a team led by the University at Buffalo reports that genes controlling nitric oxide production in the polar bear genome contain genetic differences from comparable genes in brown and black bears. Nitric oxide is a compound that cells use to help convert nutrients from food to energy or heat.

"With all the changes in the global climate, it becomes more relevant to look into what sorts of adaptations exist in organisms that live in these high-latitude environments," said lead researcher Charlotte Lindqvist, PhD, UB assistant professor of biological sciences. "This study provides one little window into some of these adaptations," she said.

"Gene functions that had to do with nitric oxide production seemed to be more enriched in the polar bear than in the brown bears and black bears. There were more unique variants in polar bear genes than in those of the other species."

The paper, titled "Polar Bears Exhibit Genome-Wide Signatures of Bioenergetic Adaptation to Life in the Arctic Environment," appeared Feb. 6 in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution.

Read the whole story at the University at Buffalo News Center

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