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Genome technology to save Australia's unique biodiversity

22 May 2020
New genetic information library to support conservation
Australia is one of the most biologically unique and diverse countries in the world. But 480 animals and 1294 plants are listed as threatened. The Threatened Species Initiative aims to help protect them.
photo of a small marsupial called a woylie

The woylie, a small marsupial, is listed as critically endangered. Photo: Sabrina Trocini.

Threatened Species

Launched today, the Threatened Species Initiative funded by Bioplatforms Australia, will create a national library of genomic data to support decision-making for biodiversity conservation.

The science lead on the project, Dr Carolyn Hogg, from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, said genetic diversity is key to adaptation. “By having a library of our threatened species’ genetic diversity, we will be able to react quickly in times of crisis knowing where the critical populations are,” Dr Hogg said. “We need to stop being reactive. And start being proactive. Investing in our wildlife’s future to create a conservation legacy.”

photo of an orange-bellied parrot sitting on a branch

Orange-bellied parrot. Photo: Dejan Stojanovic

Saving the orange-bellied parrot

“One of the species we will be looking at first is the orange-bellied parrot, Australia’s most critically endangered bird,” Dr Hogg said. “Every year birds are released from the captive population into the wild to try and boost wild population numbers. We know they have low genetic diversity at some immune genes and suffer from different diseases. Yet without a genome we have no idea how low their diversity at important gene regions actually is. A genome will provide us with a roadmap for understanding the orange-bellied parrot’s biology and how we can make decisions about releases that can improve the parrot’s adaptive potential into the future.”

photo of a young Tasmanian devil

The Tasmanian devil. Photo: Carolyn Hogg

Genomes

Dr Hogg said reference genomes for up to 50 threatened Australian species will be generated and made publicly available to the scientific community through Amazon Web Services Open Data Sets Program, as well as a reduced set of genetic data for individuals of each species

“The conservation community will be able to leverage this genomic data to tackle critical biological and conservation issues,” said Dr Hogg, who is Senior Research Manager of the Australasian Wildlife Genomics Group at the University of Sydney. “By bringing together different disciplines, and working to our strengths, we can build this library. Recording what we have now and being able to rapidly respond to the next catastrophe.”

photo of a young ground bird called a plains wanderer

A juvenile female plains wanderer. Photo: David Baker-Gabb

Working with Bioplatforms

Bioplatforms Australia General Manager Andrew Gilbert said: “This initiative has an immediate practical aspect. It will support the development of a genomics resource for Australian threatened species that is directly tuned to empower conservation managers and inform their work.”

Bioplatforms Australia is a not-for-profit organisation that manages Federal Government investment through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy in the domains of genomics, proteomics, metabolomics and bioinformatics.

Research results will be fast-tracked into management outcomes. A website and training materials developed through education partners in the conservation sector will provide skills training to industry stakeholders enabling them to integrate genetic data to assist in their population management decisions.

This project brings together genome biologists, population biologists, bioinformaticians, population geneticists and zoologists with conservation agencies.

“We will be pioneering the use of genomic information to support threatened species recovery management for those at risk from threatening processes,” Mr Gilbert said. “This project will be an exemplar of how academia, government and industry can work together in the conservation arena and will build scale and focus in collaborative adaptive conservation management.”


Declaration: The Threatened Species Initiative is funded by Bioplatforms Australia

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