Genetics is not only key to discovering and tracing new traits in an organism, but also conserving old ones — and in some cases, the species itself.
A deep understanding of genetic variation within and among species can be used to reconstruct their evolutionary history, to examine their contemporary status, and to predict the future effects of management strategies.
With this in mind, scientists at the UK’s Wellcome Sanger Institute were keen to incorporate endangered species among 25 genomes to be sequenced as part of a project to mark its 25-year anniversary, and the first assembly to be released is the golden eagle.
The first high-quality reference genome of the iconic bird, generated in partnership with the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies using SMRT Sequencing technology, the assembly is expected to be an excellent resource for international eagle conservation efforts.
The genetic information provided by the genomic map will further our understanding of the diversity and viability of golden eagles, bald eagles and other species worldwide, and could help in the identification of populations or individuals best suited for reintroduction projects.
Although the golden eagle is not considered threatened on a global scale, the species has experienced sharp population declines in some areas, including the United Kingdom and parts of the United States. Urbanization, agricultural development, and changes in wildfire regimes have compromised nesting and hunting grounds in southern California and in the sagebrush steppes of the inner West, for example, and there are only 508 breeding pairs of golden eagles in the UK, largely restricted to the Scottish Highlands and Islands.
The South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project is among many initiatives expected to benefit from the genomic information.
“With the golden eagle genome sequence, we will be able to compare the eagles being relocated to southern Scotland to those already in the area to ensure we are creating a genetically diverse population,” said project director Rob Ogden, Head of Conservation Genetics at the University of Edinburgh. “We will also be able to start investigating the biological effects of any genetic differences that we detect, not only within the Scottish population, but worldwide.”
Megan Judkins, an adjunct faculty member at Oklahoma State University and interim director of the Grey Snow Eagle House, a tribally run and operated rehabilitation and research facility of bald and golden eagles, said the new European golden eagle genome will provide essential information for learning about this species from a worldwide perspective, as previously sequenced golden eagle genomes were from the North American population.
“Having this new tool could help us reveal more about their genetic diversity and provide insight into the subspecies that are thought to exist, but are not substantiated with genomic data,” Judkins said. “Furthermore, as it is thought that the overall golden eagle population in the United States is stable at best, with some populations facing significant declines from anthropomorphic stressors, conservation tools such as this are essential for best management practices.”
Bird’s Eye View
Other endangered bird species have also been given the PacBio treatment. In some cases, the entire population of critically endangered species are having their genomes sequenced. As highlighted recently on Medium, the Kākāpō 125 Project has begun sequencing the remaining 148 members of the rare, flightless New Zealand parrot, and the ‘alalā crow is also being comprehensively profiled in an effort to save the remaining 140 members of the Hawaiian species, and to boost the breeding efforts of more. High-quality PacBio reference genomes have been essential to both projects.
We have also partnered with several multi-institutional projects striving to create larger genomic databases of high-quality, comprehensive assemblies of animal species, including:
- The Vertebrate Genomes Project – An effort to sequence 66,000 species
- The Earth BioGenome Project – A moonshot for biology which aims to sequence, catalog and characterize the genomes of all eukaryotic biodiversity in 10 years.
- Bat1K – A project to sequence the genomes of all 1,300 species of bat
- Functional Annotation of Animal Genomes (FAANG) – An effort to produce comprehensive maps of functional elements in the genomes of domesticated animal species.