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Avian Celebrity: Kākāpō Genomes Make Headlines

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A recent cover story in New Zealand Geographic vividly details the efforts to sequence not just the kākāpō genome, but the genomes of every single living kākāpō.

If you missed our earlier blog about this bird, the kākāpō is a member of the parrot family known for its unique attributes: it’s heavy, flightless, and mostly active at night. As author Rebekah White reports in “Decoding Kākāpō,” the remaining members of this species — about 125 of them — live on islands near New Zealand.

White recounts how scientist Jason Howard, a member of Erich Jarvis’s lab at Duke, first became interested in this unusual bird, and pushed to have its genome sequenced as part of the B10K project. After hitting obstacles with other sequencing technologies, Howard  found the PacBio sequencing platform, which was finally able to get through the kākāpō genome.

Meanwhile, New Zealand native David Iorns had gotten involved, launching a crowdfunding campaign to resequence every living kākāpō, relying on the PacBio reference assembly to streamline the process. The campaign was part of our Genome Galaxy Initiative and was successfully funded earlier this year. The wealth of genomic information will be used to help save the birds, which are so inbred due to a recent population bottleneck that they struggle to reproduce naturally.

According to White, delivery of the PacBio genome data to the conservation geneticist in charge of the final kākāpō assembly “was as though all his Christmases had come at once.” The genome data will be publicly available, allowing scientists around the world to use this information to better understand evolution, traits like vocal learning, and much more.

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