Sealing the deal on our 250th genome assembly

Gray seals (Halichoerus grypus) are sometimes called "horseheads" because of their large, curved noses. The male nose is so distinctive that the gray seal’s scientific name, Halichoerus grypus, means "hooked-nosed pig of the sea." (For those keeping track at home, “sea pig” is also the translation of porpoise.)

The gray seal is part of the "true" seal family, and does not have external ear flaps. The males can be quite large at up to 10 feet (3 m) long and weighing 880 pounds (400 kg). Though not as notorious for deep, long dives as Weddell seals or Elephant seals, the gray seal can dive to 1,560 feet (475 m) for as long as one hour. Gray seals breed on ice or sandy beaches in parts of Canada (Gulf of St. Lawrence, Sable Island, Nova Scotia) and on sandy or rocky beaches or islands in the U.S., and in parts of the Baltic Sea.

Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Kimberly Murray

Today, share the chromosome-length gray seal genome assembly! This is a $1K genome (cN50=62kb; sN50=141.6Mb), generated by the DNA Zoo team from short insert-size PCR-free DNA-Seq data using w2rap-contigger (Clavijo et al. 2017) (see Dudchenko et al., 2018 for details). The work was performed under Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP) Permit No. 18786-03 issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA). The specimen used in this study (Field ID 07-486-Hg, Storage ID NM19K1111C) was collected from Gloucester, MA in 2008 by Belinda Rubenstein (New England Aquarium), and provided by the National Marine Mammal Tissue Bank, which is maintained in the Marine Environmental Specimen Bank (Marine ESB) at NIST, and which is operated under the direction of NMFS with the collaboration of USGS, USFWS, MMS, and NIST through the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.

There are two pinnipeds in the US waters of the Atlantic throughout the year: the harbor and gray seals. Though nearly extinct in the 1960s, the gray seal population has rebounded to around 25,000 in US waters, with closer to 500,000 in nearby Canadian waters (NOAA Stock Report). The gray seal can be found on either side of the Atlantic, with three distinct populations: Northeast Atlantic, Northwest Atlantic and Baltic Sea, comprising two subspecies H. g. atlantica and H. g. balticus (Haug 2007; Boskovic 1996 and Olsen 2016). The sample used for genome assembly specifically came from the Western North Atlantic stock.

Check out how the 16 chromosomes of the gray seal fold inside the nucleus using the interactive Hi-C contact map of the assembled genome below. This genome is our 7th pinniped, after the spotted seal, harbor seal, bearded seal, Northern elephant seal, HA monk seal and the walrus, and marks our 250th genome assembly release. Yay!!! Stay tuned for hopefully many more to come.


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