The laboratory floor is covered in suitcases. Professor Juha Kantanen and veterinarian Tiina Reilas sort out their sampling accessories, bound to accompany them on their journey to Yakutia, Eastern Siberia.
“This solution will be vital to us on our trip”, Juha Kantanen says, placing a bottle with the label ’RNA-Later’ in his suitcase.
This expedition to Yakutia, located in the republic of Sakha, is part of the Arctic Ark project, which seeks to obtain genetic information on the northernmost cattle of the world. This project seeks to investigate how the reindeer and the unique native cattle and horse breeds in Yakutia are adapted to the extreme conditions. In Yakutia, temperatures may drop below -50° C, and snow covers the ground for more than half of the year.
“It is understandable that reindeer manage. Humans have domesticated them from ancestral wild species that were already adapted to a cold climate and scant feed. However, the horse and cow originated in very different conditions. We seek to understand the adaptation of these three species by examining their genes”, Kantanen says.
The team will examine animal adipose tissue and, in particular, those genes that are active at the moment the samples are taken.
“We are interested in finding out whether the same genes have affected the adaptation of all the three species. RNA-Later is a substance that keeps samples intact from the field to the laboratory”, Kantanen remarks.
Together with the local people
The Arctic Ark is already the third project to take Kantanen to Siberia. He says that he is pleased to return to the Yakutian villages in which he gathered samples for the first time in 2001.
“Research will be much more concrete if you are personally involved in sampling. You may even remember the sampled animal.
Multidisciplinary research combines genetics and anthropology. Under the leadership of Florian Stammler, anthropologists from the University of Lapland will investigate the local people’s traditional knowledge, ideas of the kind of animals that are adapted to local conditions and the ways such animals have helped communities to survive.
“We are now seeking a closer collaboration. We will sample together and build something completely new out of research into genetic resources and anthropology”, Kantanen says.
For Kantanen, a relationship with the local community is important.
“This will not be the kind of western study under which you go to a site and take your samples, after which the locals will never hear anything about you. We will arrange a seminar at which we will discuss the results and their use with the local people – in other words, the future of the entire community, based on the results”, Kantanen says, shedding light on his plans.
”To prevent everything from freezing”
The spring expedition will be carried out at a time when reindeer are slaughtered, also enabling the team to obtain a sample of the fat in bone marrow.
“We will start our day by putting on plenty of clothing. We participate in the slaughter, taking tissue biopsies of internal organs and sampling blood. We will pre-mark our sampling tubes in order to ensure that sampling is carried out quickly and that the work of the slaughters will not be disturbed.
The Yakutian reindeer is a big animal, as it was domesticated from the wild forest reindeer. Kantanen shows us photos of his previous trips, remarking – laughing – that the weather was not warm.
“We had gloves warmed by batteries. Every once in awhile you needed to put your hand in the warm glove and then, after a while, continue your work”.
The researchers terminated their work at sunset.
“You had to carry out your work during daylight hours. This is what our days were like”.
A valuable capacity to adapt
Kantanen drops renowned names of scientific publications such as ‘Nature’ and ‘PNAS’ while talking. The important results concerning the origins of the Yakutian horse have already been published.
“While bones of a wild horse more than 5,000 years of age have been unearthed in Yakutia, our genetic studies showed that the Yakutian horse is not descended from that horse. The Yakutian horse was quite clearly brought to the area by humans and underwent a rapid evolutionary process”, Kantanen says.
The small Yakutian cow produces a maximum of 1,000 kilos of milk per year, and only a small number of them have survived to the present day.
“Some people might even think that this is inefficient. However, we need to bear in mind the conditions and the degree to which they are adapted.
Kantanen remarks that while research will not make anybody a millionaire, it will have long-term consequences. The recognition of the genes that lie behind the adaptive capability may prove helpful for breeding animals around the world. If the climate change will deteriorate the prospects of domestic animal production, a capability to adapt to new conditions will again be required. Cross-breeding with native breeds with favourable genes might then be part of the solution.
However, for Kantanen, the most important aspect of his research is the fact that he is able to maintain the Yakutian lifestyle and culture.
“Without these animals, there would be no human communities in Yakutia”. Our work will lay a good foundation for the continued survival of these animals”.
Text: Marjatta Sihvonen