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Wellcome Sanger Institute completes sequencing of turtle dove and robin

By Paul Brackley

Despite the seasonal song, you’re not going to see two turtle doves here at this time of year.

Turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) perched on a branch (6249503)
Turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) perched on a branch (6249503)

They are migratory birds, spending their winter in Africa and returning in late April or May to breed in the UK, before leaving again between July and September.

But sadly your chances of seeing these beautiful birds, or hearing their delicate purring sound, is limited even in the summer because their numbers have declined alarmingly.

Since 1995, the UK turtle dove population has plummeted by 91 per cent, making it the country’s fastest-declining bird, and leaving only 5,000 breeding pairs. Across Europe, their numbers have fallen 78 per cent since 1980.

A lack of seed and grain for them during the breeding season is thought to be one reason for their sustained decline, and there is now a significant effort - Operation Turtle Dove, led by the RSPB and other conservation groups - to reverse the bird’s fortunes.

Now help has arrived from another source.

Scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute at Hinxton and their collaborators have sequenced and assembled the genetic code of the turtle dove for the first time.

The genome will provide a genetic reference, helping researchers to determine effective population sizes and establish breeding programmes

Dr Jenny Dunn, from the University of Lincoln, a partner in the project said: “To give turtle doves the best chance of survival in the future, we need to first understand the pressures that are affecting their population decline.

“The turtle dove genome will give insights into how diseases and limited food resources impact on their health and will aid practical conservation efforts to maximise the genetic diversity of introduced populations.”

East Anglia is one of the last remaining strongholds for turtle doves, with RSPB Fowlmere being one of the best places in Cambridgeshire to spot them.

The researchers have just completed the genome to the Vertebrate Genome Project platinum standard, along with that of another iconic bird, the European robin.

Efforts continue to improve the quality of the genome sequences, which will be made available this year.

The work forms part of the Sanger Institute’s 25 Genomes Project, marking its 25th anniversary, in which the genomes of 25 UK species are decoded for the first time.#

A robin (6249501)
A robin (6249501)

The turtle dove and robin join the golden eagle as the first of the species to have their genetic code sequenced and assembled. Other species in the list include red and grey squirrels, the blackberry and brown trout.

European robins can be found across the continent and in Russia and western Siberia. Most British robins stay here over the winter, but some seek the warmer climate of southern Europe.

Meanwhile, others from Scandinavia, continental Europe and Russia head to the UK to avoid a harsh winter.

The team hopes that the robin genome will help them explore the genetic switches that tell the bird when to leave on migration and where to go, while also giving insight into the magneto receptors that help robins ‘see’ the Earth’s magnetic fields for navigation.

Dr Miriam Liedvogel, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany, said: “Birds can use the Earth’s magnetic field as a reference for orientation during the migratory journeys, and the magnetic compass in birds was first described in a robin.

“The European robin genome will allow us to identify what’s driving migration in birds, and understand the variability of migration in other bird species as well.”

To complete the genomes, collaborators at the University of Lincoln sent blood samples from live robins and turtle doves, collected during routine health checks of populations, to the Sanger Institute.

Its sequencing teams extracted the DNA from the samples and used PacBio SMRT Sequencing technology to generate the first reference genomes for the two species.

Dr Julia Wilson, associate director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Genome sequencing has a lot to offer the natural world. Genetic information can bolster the conservation of threatened species and help unravel the tree of evolution in understanding the species we share this planet with.”

The Sanger Institute is now part of the 10-year worldwide Earth BioGenome Project, which aims to sequence the genomes of all 1.5 million known species of animals, plants, protozoa and fungi on Earth.

The UK effort led by the Sanger Institute is known as the Darwin Tree of Life Project, and will sequence 66,000 species in the country.

Read more

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