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Albino gorilla was inbred, say scientists

Albino gorilla: A genetic study of Snowflake, the world's only known albino gorilla, found that he was likely the product of a pairing between an uncle and a niece.


Snowflake, an albino gorilla from Equatorial Guinea, lived for almost 40 years at the Barcelona Zoo, where his complexion made him a star attraction.

Courtesy Institut de Biologia Evolutiva

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The most popular resident of the Barcelona Zoo likely had a mother who was also his first cousin. His maternal grandparent would therefore have been his aunt or uncle, so his paternal grandparents would have also been his maternal great-grandparents. And his offspring were his first cousins twice removed. 

It's true: Snowflake, an albino Western lowland gorilla that lived in the Barcelona Zoo for almost 40 years, is the product of inbreeding, according to an analysis of the deceased primate's genome.  

Snowflake was born in the wild and captured by villagers in Equatorial Guinea in 1966 when he was only a year or two old. He lived at the Barcelona Zoo, where his milky complexion made him a main attraction, until his death in 2003 from skin cancer.

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Using frozen blood samples, a team of 30 scientists led by Tomas Marques-Bonet of the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva at the University of Pompeu Fabra, sequenced Snowflake's genome. 

In the study, published in the current issue of the journal BMC Genomics, the researchers describe how they traced his albinism to a single gene – called SLC45A2 – that mediates the synthesis of skin, hair, and eye pigmentation in many animals, including mice, horses, tigers, some species of fish, and humans. 


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