Ben Novak – Revive & Restore’s Lead Researcher for The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback – is pursuing his Ph.D. at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. There, he will be working with scientists from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to develop a model system for testing genome editing in pigeons. In January, 2017, Novak was awarded the Faculty Graduate Research International Scholarship and the Co-funded Monash Graduate Scholarship to fund his Ph.D. research at CSIRO. This exciting phase of collaboration between Revive & Restore and CSIRO began May 1, 2017.
Novak aims to produce a strain of rock pigeons capable of improving genetic engineering capabilities for the species by integrating the Cas9 gene into the birds themselves. Cas9 is the endonuclease enzyme part of CRISPR/Cas9 system that cuts the DNA, while RNA is the CRISPR guide, directing the enzyme to specific sites in the genome so that precise genome edits are possible. CRISPR/Cas9 can even be used to edit multiple sites in the genome simultaneously – a process called multiplexing. A strain of rock pigeons that express Cas9 in every cell could improve the efficiency of subgerminal cavity injections because half of the CRISPR/Cas9 system would already be functioning in the embryo’s tissues, potentially improving the efficiency of successful and ubiquitous editing of the embryo’s cells. This could increase the germ-line transmission rates of this method of avian genetic engineering.
This method would then allow the observation of phenotypes in the first chimeric generation; saving time on selecting individuals for breeding pure, fully-edited strains of genotypes that successfully capitulate the desired phenotype. If this method works, the Cas9 strain of rock pigeons could open up the ability to test hundreds of allele variants that are being discovered in the genomes of not just extinct, but also living wild pigeon species and domestic breeds. Domestic pigeon breeds exhibit more phenotypic diversity than any other domesticated animal. Their genomes offer the ability to extend our understanding of how the evolution of genomes has created the great diversity of life on this earth.
While this work will not create a new generation of Passenger Pigeons, in the next three years the world may see the first genetic traits of the Passenger Pigeon revived in living, breathing birds.