As the world’s largest fish, the whale shark is a creature of fascination for biologists as well as everyday animal lovers. With the help of Georgia-Pacific, the Georgia Aquarium and Emory University are embarking on a revolutionary project that will help us better understand the biology of these remarkable creatures.

With the capacity to grow to more than 40 feet in length and over 20,000 pounds, only a handful of aquariums in the world can provide the necessary tank size to house whale sharks. The Georgia Aquarium is currently home to four.

While these creatures provide a truly stunning display for aquarium visitors, the presence of the whale sharks is also tremendously helpful for biologists who want to learn more about the species.

In partnership with Emory University, the Georgia Aquarium is working on the Whale Shark DNA Sequencing Project, the goal of which is to—essentially—map the entire DNA code from beginning to end. If successful, this would be a first-time achievement.

What makes the whale shark?

The aquarium acts as a living laboratory for the scientists who are able to use blood samples from the four whale sharks onsite. With this resource, they have begun the process of genome sequencing. This is basically the equivalent of putting together a very complicated puzzle that will ultimately provide a complete history of the creature and an extensive understanding of what makes the whale shark “tick” biologically.

Why is genome sequencing important?

According to Dr. Alistair Dove, Senior Scientist at Georgia Aquarium, genome sequencing is important because it “represents the ultimate information that you can gather about the biology of an animal.”

Because DNA governs everything an animal is and does, from growth to reproduction and possibly even behavior, a full map would provide the ultimate key to understanding the species. Dr. Dove even suggests the map can act in the future as a library for scientists, who are curious to know why the whale shark exhibits specific traits. 

This project is opening an entire world of information for biologists and providing insights into the nature of one of Earth’s most fascinating and unique creatures. The support of Georgia-Pacific has been tremendously important to this project. Because of their sponsorship, the Georgia Aquarium is able to not only offer a stunning whale shark display for visitors, but also help science further its understanding of our world.