Digby also hopes that the 181 genomes will reveal new ways of protecting the growing but still precarious population. For example, kakapo are notoriously infertile. Just half of their eggs hatch (compared to 80 to 90 percent for most birds), and just a third of their chicks eventually fledge. “We suspect their infertility is genetic but we don’t know for sure,” says Digby. “We can look at the genome of every individual and match that against its breeding history—for females, how many eggs they lay, and for males, their sperm quality.”
The birds also suffer from a disease called cloacitis, which Digby calls “crusty bum.” It’s treatable, but no one knows what causes it, or even if it’s an infection. In some individuals, it goes away; in others, it persists and recurs. Digby wants to know if some kakapo are genetically susceptible to the condition.
He also thinks that the genomes could help him and other conservationists to pair the kakapo most efficiently, to maximize the genetic diversity of the species. For example, early studies showed that a male named Gulliver has versions of immune genes that are completely missing in all other kakapo—even his siblings. “Now, he’s a little more important,” says Digby. “We can’t give all of them the same level of attention, so Gulliver gets a little extra. If we’re trying artificial insemination, we’ll try with his sperm a little harder than his brothers.” The full genomes of every kakapo will probably reveal similar differences.
“If we could get the species to survive and repopulate, we could track the family tree of all individuals of the species from here onward,” says Jarvis. “It would be unprecedented.” And if the recovery efforts fail, and the kakapo does become extinct, having the genomes of all remaining individuals would be useful if future scientists attempt to resurrect the species, as many are trying to do for mammoths and passenger pigeons.
Critically, the kakapo project—both the recovery effort and the specific sequencing project—are led by New Zealanders, and done in consultation with Māori. Peter Dearden, a biochemist from the University of Otago, has lamented the fact that the first kiwi genome was sequenced by a German group that included no New Zealanders at all. “It is a sort of colonialism,” he wrote. “It is not necessary, nor appropriate, for these to be scientifically investigated overseas with no links to their place of origin.”
Digby sympathizes. “I’ve worked really hard to make sure that we do as much of this work in New Zealand as possible,” he says. “It’s especially important to maintain the link between genomics and conservation, and you need some contact with the host country to make sure that’s implemented. People can study the genome, and get citations for their papers, but what does that mean for the species?”
* This article originally misstated that the project raised its funds solely through crowdfunding, and omitted the Genetic Rescue Foundation’s involvement. We regret the error.
* This article originally stated that the kakapo would become the first species to have every individual’s genome sequenced. We (and the kakapo team) have become aware that another group has already sequenced the genomes of every Spix’s macaw—another critically endangered bird. We regret the error.