In a desperate attempt to save a critically endangered parrot species known as kakapo, researchers from Duke University plan to sequence the genomes of all surviving individuals – an easy task because there are only 125 left.
Kakapos are the heaviest and the only flightless parrot species in the world. These New Zealand natives build their nests on the ground and primarily feed on plants, fruits and seeds.
By sequencing the animals' genomes, researchers hope to learn more about their fertility and any particular diseases they may be susceptible to. It will also help researchers avoid mating closely related individuals because kakapos are already inbred and suffer from low genetic diversity.
Kakapos are long-lived birds with an average life span of 95 years. They mate every three to five. When Europeans settled on the island they brought invasive predators with them, ultimately spurring the ground-dwelling parrots' decline. In fact, by the 1970s only 18 kakapos were left. While conservationists have made attempts to save the birds, such as relocating them to predator-free islands, the animals need more time to grow their populations.
With one bird's genome already sequenced, Duke University researchers are currently collecting DNA from 40 more animals. The New Zealand Genomics Ltd at the University of Otago will sequence the remaining genomes.
"I thought if we've done it for one kakapo, there's not many living kakapo – so could we do it for all of them?" Dr. Andrew Digby, scientist for the Kakapo and Takahe Recovery Programmes, said in a statement. "As with the human genome project, we'll be mining this for many years to come, and new and novel things will come out of it."
It is estimated that the entire project will cost approximately $100,000, so scientists are reaching out for help. They're trying to raise $45,000 via Experiment, a crowd funding website for scientific research. If this goal is reached, an entire animal population's genome will be sequenced for the first time ever.
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