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Newly sequenced bird genomes cover 92% of world's avian families

Roughly 40 percent of the newly sequenced genomes were obtained using tissue samples from the National Museum of Natural History's Avian Genetic Resources Collection. Photo by Chip Clark/Smithsonian
Roughly 40 percent of the newly sequenced genomes were obtained using tissue samples from the National Museum of Natural History's Avian Genetic Resources Collection. Photo by Chip Clark/Smithsonian

Nov. 11 (UPI) -- With the publication of the genomes of 363 bird species, 267 of which were sequenced for the first time, the 10,000 Genomes Project has reached an impressive milestone.

The project, a collaboration among hundreds of scientists at several dozen research institutions, is an effort to sequence the genome of every bird species on Earth. As the project's name implies, there are more than 10,000 living bird species.

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While the breakthrough -- detailed in a study Wednesday in the journal Nature -- puts scientists only 3 percent closer to their ultimate goal, the newly published sequencing data offers genomic insights into species from 92 percent of the world's avian families.

Roughly 40 percent of genome samples that made the latest breakthrough possible were sourced from avian collections at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History -- one of more than 100 institutions supporting the projects.

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Though sequencing for the project began in 2011, researchers were laying the foundation for the B10K project decades prior.

"Through 34 years of field work and dozens of expeditions, we were able to get the stockpile of high-quality DNA that actually makes this project possible," study co-author Gary Graves said in a news release. "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."

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"It's one of the many reasons why natural history museum collections and museum-based research programs are so important!" said Graves, curator of birds at the National Museum of Natural History and one of the project's seven organizers.

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Sequencing efforts were carried out by ornithologists, molecular biologists and computer scientists at the Smithsonian Institution, Rockefeller University, University of California, Santa Cruz, University of Copenhagen, Natural History Museum of Denmark, Imperial College London and Institute of Zoology in Beijing, as well as dozens of other museums, universities and research institutions.

"B10K is probably the single most important project ever conducted in the study of birds," Graves said. "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."

By comparing the genomic signatures of species across the full spectrum of bird families, researchers hope to piece together a comprehensive picture of avian evolution and gain new insights into the evolutionary relationship among modern birds.

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The comprehensive genomic portrait won't just clarify the history of avian diversification, but will also help scientists and conservationists make more informed decisions about species protection and habitat restoration.

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"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," said study co-author Rob Fleischer.

"Having the genomes [also] simplifies the search for genes responsible for important survival traits such as resistance to deadly introduced diseases," said Fleischer, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Center for Conservation Genomics.

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