Bird genome project really takes off

Bird lovers can now rejoice in exploring the genomes of nearly all bird families.

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About 40% of the newly sequenced bird genomes were obtained using tissue samples preserved in what is now part of the Smithsonian’s Global Genome Initiative biorepository in the US Credit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian

The huge international team behind the Bird 10,000 Genomes (B10K) project has just reported on 92.4% of those families – representing 363 bird species in all – in a paper in the journal Nature, significantly bolstering the avian tree of life.

More than two-thirds were sequenced for the first time, including a wide range of birds from the common chicken to the glamorous hornbills, which could reveal the evolutionary origins of birds.

“B10K is probably the single most important project ever conducted in the study of birds,” says Gary Graves, from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in the US.

“We’re not only hoping to learn about the phylogenetic relationships among the major branches of the tree of life of birds, but we’re providing an enormous amount of comparative data for the study of the evolution of vertebrates and life itself.”

Likewise, new genomic data opens up many new research avenues to understanding evolution, disease management and conservation.

“For example, it provides a ready source of genetic markers useful to map population declines, identify kin and reduce inbreeding when managing rescue populations of endangered species,” says the Smithsonian’s Rob Fleischer.

“Having the genomes simplifies the search for genes responsible for important survival traits such as resistance to deadly introduced diseases.”

Researchers from more than 100 global institutions analysed over 17 trillion units of DNA from tissue samples collected from every continent. This massive achievement represents decades of work from hundreds of bird lovers, scientists and collectors.

“Through 34 years of fieldwork and dozens of expeditions, we were able to get the stockpile of high-quality DNA that actually makes this project possible,” says Graves.

“Many of those resources were stored long before DNA sequencing technology had been developed, preserved for future analyses their collectors could not have imagined at the time.”

This part of the project looked at bird families – a rank of relatedness that is two steps above species and refers to groups of birds that share specific common traits and genetics. For example, the domestic chicken is part of the family Phasianidae, which includes other heavy, ground-dwelling birds such as turkeys and peafowl.

The next step is to sequence genomes of the rank below family. The researchers aim to sequence over 2000 genera of birds, which is one rank above species.

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