What good is a genome anyway?

September 30, 2009
I read an interesting post by Olivia Judson at the New York Times blog a few weeks ago, which asked if you could sequence any genome, what would you choose?  Olivia’s choice was the coelacanth– a worthy choice, given that the coelacanth may represent the ancestor of all tetrapods (the amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals).  No prizes for guessing what my choice would be…

Anyway, this got me thinking.  What good is a genome sequence?  What is it going to tell us about our favourite organism that good old-fashioned biological enquiry and lab work hasn’t been able to tell us so far?  Whenever the idea of sequencing the tuatara genome is discussed, one of the major questions that comes back (especially from non-geneticists) is “why?  Even though genome sequencing is getting faster and cheaper by the day, it still requires huge resources of time and money and it’s not always obvious why its worth going to the effort.   Read the rest of this entry »

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Warrior genes and the disease of being a scientist

September 15, 2009

The past few days, headlines like “Maori don’t have warrior gene” and “Maori warrior gene debunked” have been all over the media. This has left me with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and thinking that this sounds a lot like media hype/oversimplification of what is a very complex area of research.  To recap…

Back in 2006, Rod Lea gave a presentation at the 11th International Congress of Human Genetics showing that Maori have a higher frequency of a particular variant of the Monoamine Oxidase-A (MAO-A) gene.  In some studies, this particular variant has been linked with aggression and antisocial behaviour, and one study back in 2004 dubbed it “the warrior gene”.  The media picked this story up, and bandied around headlines like “Warrior gene blamed for Maori violence”, making statements claiming that “New Zealand Maori carry a “warriorgene which makes them more prone to violence, criminal acts and risky behaviour”.  This is not what Lea and colleagues claim in their original study at all – I’ll talk more about that below.

Anyway, now according to media reports this claim has been “debunked by science”.  When I read this my initial thought was that someone has done another study of Maori MAO-A allele frequencies, and found conflicting results.  But actually this is not the case at all.  The “scientific study” that debunks this claim is actually just a review by Maori academic Dr Gary Hook, published in Mai Review – a peer-reviewed journal of Maori and Indigenous development, but not a scientific journal.  Hook makes some good points, which I’ll talk more about in a minute, but presents no new data and much of his review of the scientific controversy has already been covered in a previous article.

Read the rest of this entry »


Protected minke whales from unreported bycatch sold on Japanese markets

September 6, 2009

ResearchBlogging.org Japan kills over a hundred minke whales each year under the guise of “scientific whaling”, and much of the meat ends up in the commercial markets destined for Japanese dinner plates.  Now a study just published in Animal Conservation indicates that a similar number of whales are killed as “bycatch” in Japanese coastal waters, and much of this catch is unregulated and goes unreported.  

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Tuatara: one species or two?

July 23, 2009
ResearchBlogging.org New Zealand’s most iconic reptile, the tuatara, is currently regarded as two separate species – Sphenodon guntheri, which is found naturally only on North Brother Island in Cook Strait, and Sphenodon punctatus, which are found on other islands in Cook Strait and off the north-east coast of the North Island.  However research just published online in Conservation Genetics shows that Sphenodon guntheri is not as genetically distinctive as first thought, and suggests tuatara should be regarded as one species.  Read the rest of this entry »

Modelling for better management

June 24, 2009

Conservation management in New Zealand often involves translocating endangered species to predator-free sanctuaries.  These translocations are often not as successful as they should be, but it can be difficult to pinpoint the reason why.  A major problem for newly established populations can be the loss of genetic diversity that comes with establishing new populations from only a few founders.  Loss of genetic diversity can increase the risk of extinction by reducing a population’s ability to adapt to new threats or environmental changes.  Generally, conservation management programs for threatened species should aim to retain 90-95% heterozygosity over 100-200 years, but in reality management practices are often dictated more by convenience or by what can be realistically achieved in the field at the time. 

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Tuatara ready for release

New research (to be published soon in Molecular Ecology) by Victoria University PhD student Kim Miller has the potential to improve translocation planning for our native reptiles by offering guidelines for maximising genetic diversity and managing populations over time.   Read the rest of this entry »