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Passenger Pigeon

Informing Bird Conservationists on Current and Potential Uses of Genetic Rescue

By November 9, 2016July 9th, 2017No Comments

By Ben J. Novak

At the 2016 North American Ornithology Conference (NAOC) held this August in Washington D.C., Heath Hen de-extinction project leaders Ben Novak and Jeff Johnson organized and facilitated an important symposium: “Current and future prospects on avian de-extinction and genetic rescue”. While the Heath Hen and Passenger Pigeon de-extinction projects have begun to receive coverage in the press (see UnDark magazine‘s piece on resurrecting the heath hen and National Geographic on reviving the passenger pigeon), the versatile uses of genomic technologies for avian conservation hasn’t yet reached many professional and citizen scientists working to save birds and their habitats. Important scientific advances in Revive & Restore’s avian de-extinction work made for the perfect introduction to the growing applications of biotechnology for avian conservation.


The program’s eleven speakers introduced a set of diverse ways that avian conservationists can begin applying and developing new biotechnology tools to save birds. Tom Chase of The Nature Conservancy eloquently introduced the value of exploring these new solutions for intractable problems. He then discussed tactics to address the lack of awareness in the new genomic technologies in the communities that can benefit from their use. The key message was that these technologies are not last resort, fringe efforts for species, but an expanding tool kit for aiding conservation at every stage of management.

The symposium didn’t shy away from cutting edge science, introducing some of the preliminary genome editing and reproductive techniques being pioneered in biomedicine and agriculture using the domestic chicken model (Marie-Cecile van de Lavoir and Caitlyn Cooper). Such advances in the domestic chicken open the possibility of using advanced reproductive techniques for endangered birds to aid captive breeding programs. Genome editing may be used to facilitate adaptation to disease or human driven environmental changes.

Notable topics of the symposium included:

  • Jolene Sutton of the University of Hawai’i explained how sequencing whole genomes of the Hawaiian Crow, a San Diego Zoo Global Hawaiian Endangered Bird Program collaboration, has benefitted conservation efforts. The Hawaiian Crow, or Alala, was saved from extinction via captive breeding. After a decade of being extinct in the wild, it is now being reintroduced to its native ecosystem. Whole genome sequences of birds bred in captivity are being used to inform future breeding and release decisions – an increasingly common practice for intensely managed species. Other recovery projects using genomic resources include the California Condor and the New Zealand Kakapo.
  • Peter Dunn of the University of Wisconsin described his research to correlate specific immunological genes with survival rates of the endangered Attwater’s Prairie Chickens after birds bred in captivity were released to the wild. In captive breeding programs, scientists assume that high genetic diversity (or high heterozygosity) in the population is the most important factor for viable recovery. However, researchers have found that specific variants of immunology genes, not heterozygosity, were correlated with survival in the wild. Breeding for specific genes rather than diversity may be important for future recovery.
  • John Godwin of North Carolina State University highlighted the prospects of eradicating invasive rodents with gene drives. Invasive mice and rats are a scourge to island birds around the world. Current eradication methods using rodenticides have devastating off-target impacts on other species, sometimes fail due to unforeseen environmental factors, and do not work well over large landscapes. Gene drives that skew sex ratios to produce an all-male population offer a safer and more efficient alternative.
  • Marie-Cecile van de Lavoir of Crystal Bioscience outlined methods to genetically engineer birds using primordial germ cells – an important step in avian de-extinction.
Source: Ben Novak

Source: Ben Novak



Source: Ben Novak


Source: Ben Novak

Source: Ben Novak

The social science considerations of using genomic technologies for conservation were presented by historian Mark Barrows, author of “Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology,” and environmental law professor, Alex Camacho, author of “Going the Way of the Dodo: De-Extinction, Dualisms, and Reframing Conservation”.

The talks were well attended and stimulated important discussions throughout the conference. In particular, students in attendance expressed questions for establishing genomics projects and pursing careers in these emerging fields. The goal of any symposium, such as this, is to inspire new projects, promote the application of new tools to existing efforts, and ignite collaborative efforts to further current work — Revive & Restore is discussing new projects with several attendees of the symposium.

The 2016 NAOC was an excellent venue for exhibiting new genetic rescue tools. The conference’s theme was “bringing science and conservation together”. It certainly was an impressive venue. It was the largest NAOC yet, with over 2,000 participants from 41 countries worldwide, showcasing over 1,500 talks on avian research and conservation — eleven of which gave some much needed visibility to the amazing new capabilities of genetic rescue for endangered and extinct birds. The abstracts and program of the 2016 NAOC are freely available online. Anyone can aid in the mission to communicate and develop genetic rescue for birds – I hope readers will personally explore the research of our speakers and brainstorm more ways to expand the use of genetic rescue for conservation.


The symposium program is as follows:

  • Infecting mainstream conservation with genomic solutions – Tom Chase, The Nature Conservancy, Martha’s Vineyard
  • From discovery to surveillance to intervention:  a bird’s eye view of modern avian extinction – Mark Barrow Jr., Department of History, Virginia Tech College
  • Revive & Restore’s ‘The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback’: predicting conservation gains of de-extinction through researching natural history – Ben Novak, Revive & Restore, The Long Now Foundation
  • Primordial germ cells as a route to access the avian genome – Marie-Cecile van de Lavoir, Crystal Bioscience, California
  • Generation of gene edited birds in one generation using sperm transfection assisted gene editing (STAGE) – Caitlin Cooper, CSIRO Animal Health Laboratory, Australia
  • SRY Mice: Genetic approaches to controlling invasive rodent populations on islands – John Godwin, Department of Biological Sciences, North Carolina State University
  • B10K: The genome sequencing of all extant birds  – Jason Howard, Department of Neurobiology, Duke University School of Medicine
  • Back where they belong: Developing genomic resources to aid reintroductions of an ‘extinct in the wild’ species. [Hawaiian crow] – Jolene Sutton, Department of Biology, University of Hawaiʻi
  • What genes are important to immunity and survival in the endangered Attwater’s prairie-chicken? – Peter Dunn, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Wisconsin
  • Heath Hen de-extinction: prospects and considerations based on whole genome analysis – Jeff Johnson, Department of Biological Sciences, Institute of Applied Sciences, University of North Texas
  • De-extinction, legal dualisms, and reframing conservation policy – Alex Camacho, Center for Land, Environment, and Natural Resources, University of California, Irvine