Strategic Initiatives

Evolution in Ancient New Zealand – the Tuatara Genome Project

Tuatara are taonga, a New Zealand treasure and of considerable scientific interest worldwide for their place in the vertebrate evolutionary tree. They represent a major and ancient lineage of vertebrates and are a key link to the ancestors from which dinosaurs, modern reptiles, birds and mammals evolved. Once widespread across the supercontinent of Gondwana, this lineage is now long extinct everywhere in the world except New Zealand, where their natural habitats have been restricted to a small number of offshore islands in Cook Strait and the north of the North Island.

In 2012 the AWC began a project to sequence an entire tuatara genome in collaboration with Ngātiwai. This major project, co-coordinated by AWC PI Professor Neil Gemmell, involves research and funding partnerships with a number of national and international bodies. The completed tuatara genome is likely to generate major insights into the evolution not only of vertebrates but also of key biological systems including those involved in sex determination, chromosome inactivation and regulation, immunity and homeostasis.

The tuatara is currently recognised as being vulnerable to extinction due to habitat loss, predation, disease, global warming and other factors. An important outcome of the tuatara genome project is providing the data for future analyses to aid efforts to conserve the species in a number of ways for example, in the identification of genes that might be important in conferring resistance or susceptibility to disease, and understanding the genetic basis of the local adaptations.

Key Benefits

  • A knowledge-base for future tuatara conservation work
  • New evidence for understanding vertebrate evolution
  • Important contributions to the worldwide scientific community
  • Highlighting New Zealand’s leading-edge scientific capability and excellence

Listen to Neil discussing the tuatara genome project with Kim Hill on the Radio NZ’s ‘Saturday Morning’ programme (29 September 2012).
The Tuatara Genome Blog, written by popular science blogger, and former AWC PhD student Dr David Winter, will keep you up-to-date with the progress of this exciting project.