Project reaches fundraising target


STRONG international support has enabled a ground-breaking kakapo research project to reach its first fundraising target in just six weeks.
A crowd-funding appeal for the Kakapo 125 Genomes Project was launched at the start of last month.
The collaboration between researchers from the Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery Group, Otago University and its NZ Genomics Ltd business, Duke University in the United States and the Genetic Rescue Foundation will sequence the genomes of all known living kakapo.
That should enable scientists to pair up the healthiest birds and the best breeders while ensuring genetic diversity.
The native flightless parrots only live in three places, Whenua Hou/ Codfish Island, off Stewart Island, Anchor Island in south-west Fiordland, and Hauturu/Little Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf. At present there are 123 adults and 37 chicks, although the chicks will not be sequenced until they are older.
University of Otago zoologist Bruce Robertson, a member of an international research team, said crowdfunding had already brought in NZ$64,300 — enough to begin phase one.
Fundraising would continue to secure the remaining NZ$35,720 needed to finish sequencing the New Zealand population and to sequence samples from 55 kakapo exhibits held in museums around the world, he said.
‘‘It’s all happened in six weeks. There is obviously a lot of support and interest out there.’’
The project was ‘‘a world-first scientific achievement’’, he said, as no one had sequenced the genome of every surviving member of a species before.
‘‘About 60 Californian condors have been sequenced, but to my knowledge that is the most sequenced of one endangered species.’’
The Department of Conservation (Doc) began an intensive kakapo recovery programme 25 years ago when there were only 49 adult birds. Prof Robertson said Doc kept very good DNA samples, and some fresh samples had also been taken recently.
Samples from 40 birds were being sequenced now in a machine kept in the University of Otago’s biochemistry department.
Prof Robertson said the machine produced ‘‘libraries’’ showing genetic material in tiny fragments. By analysing the fragments it was possible to see genetic similarities and differences.
That process would take about 20-25 years, he said.
‘‘Once we do the analysis we will have some idea of what particular genes do. Then we can start looking at issues such as why kakapo mothers have poor hatching success, poor sperm quality in males, and who’s related to who.
‘‘Potentially we can use the information to breed [the best] individuals using artificial insemination.’’
Studying the genetic sequencing of the museum exhibits might also show whether today’s population was more prone to health issues such as low immunity, he said.
With new technology, it might be possible to boost birds’ immunity by replacing lost genes, he said.
Prof Robertson said he was ‘‘incredibly excited’’ by the opportunities sequencing opened up.
‘‘I’ve been studying the genetics of kakapo since the 1990s, but the ability to do what we are doing now has only been around the last 10 years.’’