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Passenger Pigeon

Reflections on Martha’s Centennial

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– by Ben Novak The passenger pigeon was once the world’s most plentiful bird. September 1 is the centenary of the bird’s extinction. Martha, the last pigeon of the species, died at the Cincinnati Zoo and now can be viewed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.  There is no limit to the alluring curiosities of living things, and no end to the mysteries of those gone. Contrary to the poetic nature of “righting past wrongs” that some attribute to the de-extinction of passenger pigeons, I view the de-extinction of the passenger pigeon as a project seeded in our present and…

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New Passenger Pigeon Genomes

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By Beth Shapiro, PhD Associate Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Co-Principal Investigator of the Paleogenomics Lab, University of California Santa Cruz As you may know, a different group (not us — Ouch!) has published a paper in PNAS on June 16 (see abstract and link below) in which they use genome sequence data from several preserved passenger pigeons to infer long-term demographic trends in the bird. It is important to the de-extinction effort because it shows (as our data do) that passenger pigeon populations fluctuated in size through time, as resource availability changed. This means that we probably won’t need to bring back billions…

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Why Birds are a Challenge

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by Ben Novak Birds are a huge challenge for de-extinction for two big reasons. The first is because less genomic research has been performed on birds than on mammals (but reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates and plants are even less understood). We don’t know how the majority of gene pathways in birds work on the cellular levels and up. But this is far less challenging to de-extinction than the inability to clone a bird. The reason that the absence of a uterus is a problem for cloning relates to how cloning is done. When you take the nucleus out of an egg cell you kill that cell, it is completely dead….

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De-Extinction and the Microbiome

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by Ben Novak Current research on microbiomes reveals that an organism’s microbiota are co-evolved with the host species, but not to a point of specificity that is problematic between related organisms (such as one kind of pigeon in relation to another). While genetic and epigenetic factors play between the host organism and the microbiota — determining which microbes successfully colonize the gut and other organs — the ultimate dictating force of the composition of an organism’s microbiome is diet and environment. For de-extinction purposes, the microbiome of the living species used to engineer the extinct species is the microbiome that…

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DNA Sequencing starts on “Passenger Pigeon 1871”

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by Ben Novak On October 8th, 2013, Ryan Phelan, Stewart Brand, and I were graciously allowed to view a historic moment at Genentech Hall of the University of California San Francisco‘s Mission Bay campus. We were in the sequencing facility courtesy of Eric Chow, Jo Derisi, and Jessica Lund, who manage the sequencing facility and conduct fascinating research in the lab. Our passenger pigeon DNA is in their hands now, as our genome candidate “Passenger Pigeon 1871” (aka ROM 34.3.23.2, aka BN1-1), begins extensive DNA sequencing. The “1871” is for the year that the specimen was shot and then preserved….

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One Specimen’s Journey to the Genome

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by Ben Novak In 1871 along the east shore of the Don River, a Canadian named William S. W. Grainger witnessed a flock of North America’s most common birds: passenger pigeons. As Grainger harvested a decent female pigeon from the flock that day he probably didn’t think the species could ever go extinct. The passenger pigeon numbered in the billions from the time he was a child all the way until this hunting expedition in the woods, that would later become the greater metropolitan area of Toronto. The people of Toronto had often seen flocks that seemed endless along the shores…

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New Research for Old Birds

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by Ben Novak The extinction of the passenger pigeon has challenged our conceptions of nature for a century. The bird that was “too numerous to go extinct” disappeared in a decade, leaving only skins and mounts in museum collections and a few in private hands. If the most abundant bird in the world could collapse at the hands of mankind, then perhaps any species was vulnerable to our onslaught. The loss of this astounding and albeit “larger than life” piece of American wilderness impressed upon citizens of the early 20th century to conserve our wild places and the creatures within…

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