Texas Researchers Sequence Entire Genome Of Scarlet Macaw
May 14, 2013

Texas Researchers Sequence Entire Genome Of Scarlet Macaw

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

In what is being hailed as a “groundbreaking” advancement in the fields of avian evolution, biology and conservationism, researchers from the Texas A&M University (TAMU) College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences have successfully sequenced the complete genome of a Scarlet macaw.

Dr. Christopher Seabury and Dr. Ian Tizard of the College Station, Texas-based university´s Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center are the first scientists to successfully sequence the complete genome of the South American parrot. The results of their work are detailed in the current edition of the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLOS One.

According to the researchers, they used a female macaw from the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa known as Neblina. The parrot is believed to have come from Brazil, and was confiscated during a 1995 US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) raid on illegally imported exotic birds. Tizard said he and his colleagues took a blood sample and extracted DNA from Neblina in order to complete the steps required for the sequencing process.

“The final analysis showed that there are about one billion DNA bases in the genome, which is about one-third of that found in mammals. Birds have much less DNA than mammals primarily because they do not possess nearly as much repetitive DNA,” he explained in a statement. While the final genome is similar to that of the chicken, Tizard said there are “significant differences at both the genome and biological level.”

“Macaws can fly great distances, while chickens can't,” he said. “In addition, brain development and volume are very different in macaws, which is unsurprising since they are very intelligent birds compared to chickens. Likewise, macaws can live many years, while chickens usually do not, and therefore, our macaw genome sequence may help shed light on the genetic factors that influence longevity and intelligence.”

Tizard explained the researchers selected a Scarlet macaw for the sequencing effort because researchers at Texas A&M had been studying the species for several years — analyzing macaw diseases, behavior, and genetics at the Tambopata Research Center in Peru. He and his colleagues report that their work will also enhance the research-related possibilities surrounding the Scarlet Macaw.

There are 23 different species of macaws, some of which have become extinct and several others of which are currently endangered, the researchers said. The birds, which are typically found in Central and South America, have been targeted by trappers and negatively affected by deforestation in their natural habitats.

“They are considered to be among the most intelligent of all birds and also one of the most affectionate — it is believed they are sensitive to human emotions,” Tizard said, adding they can live to be 50 to 75 years of age. “Possessing stunning feathers that are brightly colored, some macaws have a wingspan approaching four feet. They also usually mate for life and can fly as fast as 35 miles per hour.”