Skip to comments.ROM scientists move toward resurrecting Auk
Posted on 03/07/2002 9:29:48 AM PST by Oxylus
Scientists at the Royal Ontario Museum are slowly but successfully piecing together the genetic blueprint of the Great Auk from the scattered remains of a bird whose extinction at the hand of man in the first half of the 19th century has made it the tragic figure of Canadian nature.
In a project aimed at tracing the Great Auk's evolutionary history and establishing its relationship to several living species of birds, the researchers are also taking the first steps toward a tantalizing possibility: the complete mapping of an extinct animal's genome and its resurrection through cloning.
''Technically it's possible,'' said Oliver Haddrath, a molecular evolutionary biologist who is performing the painstaking DNA extraction from the bone of a Great Auk that died more than 150 years ago. ''But the amount of intense labour is phenomenal. One day, who knows? We always find clever ways of getting things done. There may be ways to do this in the future.''
Last week, a team of British scientists successfully recovered fragments of DNA from an Oxford University specimen of the dodo, another flightless bird that was hunted to extinction in the 17th century.
But the sequencing of DNA from the Great Auk is considerably further along. The ROM team led by Allan Baker, head of the museum's Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, has identified enough Great Auk DNA to suggest it shared a common ancestor with other members of the auk, but split about nine million years ago and began trading its power of flight for an ability to dive deeper in pursuit of fish.
But the 2,000 DNA base pairs identified represent a miniscule fraction of the estimated three billion that make up the Great Auk's genome.
Mr. Haddrath said that amount of information can be represented as five compact discs packed with data. To demonstrate the challenge of reassembling the genetic blueprint from degraded remnants of organic material from an extinct species, Mr. Haddrath said it is like taking those discs, smashing them into small pieces with a sledgehammer and then feeding those bits through a coffee grinder.
''That's what the DNA's like. All of the information is there. But the task of making another dodo or another Great Auk is analogous to taking this pile of rubble ... reading every single fragment and then putting it back together to make a workable CD.''
The birds were killed for flesh, feathers and eggs and their oily carcasses even tossed on fires for warmth.
Even after its demise in the 1840s, the rotting remains of the final generations of the Great Auk were mined by fertilizer companies that shipped tonnes of decayed birds and droppings that had amassed on Funk Island off the coast of Newfoundland. The small island, a rocky nesting site for many species of marine birds, became the final killing ground for the Great Auk in Canada about two centuries ago.
In 1844, the last known pair of birds in the world was hunted down at the request of a collector by three men on an island near Iceland.
Note: this topic is from March 7, 2002. Thanks Oxylus.
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