Heath Hen Genomic Study News

By March 6, 2015Heath Hen

Blog by Jeff Johnson, Associate Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Institute of Applied Sciences, University of North Texas; Project Coordinator – Heath Hen Genomic Study

Jeff_Johnson_bird_copyWe are one step closer to determining the genomic distinctiveness of the extinct heath hen. In collaboration with Dovetail Genomics, we have sequenced the entire genome of the Greater Prairie-chicken, a close relative of the heath hen, which will allow us to better assemble a selection of heath hen genomes extracted from museum specimens collected in the late 1800s. Ben Novak, Lead Researcher of The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback, Revive & Restore has been working tirelessly in preparing the samples for genomic sequencing, including those from Lesser Prairie-chicken, Sharp-tailed Grouse and Attwater’s Prairie-chicken, all members of the same taxonomic genus that includes the heath hen. By comparing the genomes of all members of the genus Tympanuchus, we will obtain a most accurate appraisal of the heath hen’s evolutionary history, including an opportunity to identify those regions of its genome that make it unique. We are on schedule to have our first heath hen sequences available for genome assembly and comparison by early April.

Because DNA becomes increasingly fragmented post-mortem, it was essential to obtain an accurate reference genome of a closely related species to the heath hen. Imagine having the task of reassembling the fragmented pieces from a great novel such as The Grapes of Wrath after it had been passed through a paper shredder. As painful as that sounds, your ability to do so would benefit greatly from referencing Steinbeck’s earlier pre-publication draft than having to identify the order of pieces without having read the book. Dovetail’s genome, therefore, has laid the foundation for which the remainder of the project depends, and it was crucial that we succeed in obtaining the freshest of samples for this first genome. For that, we must thank John Toepfer, Research Consultant, Society of Tympanuchus Cupido Pinnatus, Ltd. for his devotion to this project and obtaining samples from two female Greater Prairie-chickens in Nebraska. We obtained tissue from two birds just in case both were needed, as Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie-chicken are known to hybridize in the area where John was working. There was no indication that the samples originated from hybrids as determined by sequencing a set of species-specific loci on the Z-chromosome. Additional tissues were also sent to Oliver Ryder’s lab (Director of Genetics, San Diego Frozen Zoo) to initiate cell lines in San Diego Frozen Zoo’s facility for future reference.

This is a very exciting project and we hope you stay tuned as it is guaranteed to provide exciting results. Special thanks to our funders and all those interested in the Heath Hen.


For more news about this project, see Sara Brown’s article in the Vineyard Gazette, “Heath Hen Project Advances Quickly“, Thursday, March 5, 2015.