scientifique kiwis

Gosh, we had a good Cafe Scientifique this week. My friend & colleague, Dave Lambert, was there to talk about his latest project – sequencing the kiwi genome. (That's kiwi bird, not kiwi people.) And he wants to get you involved!

You might ask, why sequence the kiwi genome? Well, the Australians are doing the same for the kangaroo, so why not? But seriously – there is so much to gain from achieving this. The information would let us look at the evolutionary history of kiwi and other ratites (the flightless group that includes moa, emu, ostrich, cassowary, & rhea). We could compare the ratite genomes with that of modern birds & maybe work out why, for example, moa had no wings at all (the other ratites have wings ranging in size from the kiwi's little stubs to the substantial wings of an ostrich). Or ask what would happen if one of the genes controlling wing development in chickens was replaced with its moa or kiwi homologue. We could use the data in conservation, identifying genetic differences between the different species and between populations within species, with the potential to enhance breeding programmes. And we could apply it to studying how kiwi skins used for making cloaks (korowai) were traded around the country.

So, where do you come into it? The answer takes us to the techniques Dave's team will be using. The actual sequencing of the kiwi genome is fairly straightforward: the DNA is cut into short segments, each around 25-30 base pairs in length, and sequenced by any of several techniques. (Which use very very expensive pieces of equipment.) However, these sequences are completely randomised and the trick is to work out what order they lie in, in the original DNA. This is done by comparing the fragments' sequences with another genome where the complete base sequence is known – Dave's group will be using the chicken genome.

But: they want to get the public involved – by using the spare screensaver capacity on people's home computers to do the kiwi-chicken comparisons. (The SETI project – the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence – does something similar.) When the project gets going, people who sign up will be sent (electronically) the chicken sequence & some bits of kiwi sequence data, & their computer will do the rest. Sequencing of kiwi by Kiwis – how cool is that? If you're keen to sign up, drop Dave an e-mail.

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