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DNA reveals kiwi's 'bizzare' relative

DNA reveals kiwi's 'bizzare' relative

An artists' impression of the elephant bird. Credit Brian Choo)

A new study has found that the Kiwi's closest relative is the extinct elephant bird - a 2.3 metre tall, 250 kilogram monster from Madagascar.

The research from the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) has solved a 150-year-old evolutionary mystery about the origins of the giant flightless ratite birds, such as the emu and ostrich, which are found across the southern continents. This group contains some of the world's largest birds - such as the extinct giant moa and elephant birds of Madagascar.

The different ratite species were long thought to have formed as the flightless birds were isolated by the separation of the southern continents over the last 130 million years.

However, ancient DNA extracted from bones of two elephant birds held by the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, has revealed a close genetic connection with the kiwi, despite the striking differences in geography, morphology and ecology between the two.

The findings also indicated that the ratite linages had spread via flying ancestors, rather than flightless birds being separated by continental drift.

The results, published today in Science, corrects previous work by ACAD Director Professor Alan Cooper conducted in the 1990s, which had shown the closest living relatives of the kiwi were the Australian emu and cassowary. "It's great to finally set the record straight, as New Zealanders were shocked and dismayed to find that the national bird appeared to be an Australian immigrant," says Professor Cooper. "I can only apologise it has taken so long!"

Speaking at a SMC media briefing yesterday, Prof Cooper admitted the diminutive kiwi and gargantuan elephant bird were unlikely cousins. "It's about as bizarre a finding as you can get," he said.

Alan Tennyson, Curator of Vertebrates at Te Papa, said "The New Zealand kiwi is an integral part of this country's culture and heritage. It's fitting that Te Papa's scientific collections have been used to resolve the mystery of its origins."

You can watch the SMC Media Briefing with Prof Alan Cooper and Alan Tennyson, and read related news coverage on the Science Media Centre website.

On the science radar this week...

Bacterial border control dogs, empathy brain training, lonely snake rediscovered and the Big Bang backlash

High court quashes GMO decision

What is a genetically modified organism? New Zealand's legal system is struggling with the question in the face of emerging new technologies - as highlighted in a new High Court decision.

At the heart of the decision was Crown Research Institute Scion's plans to develop pine tree strains using new techniques based on ZFN-1 (Zinc Finger Nuclease Type 1) and TALEs(Transcription Activator-Like Effectors).

Both are molecular techniques that alter the genetic code of an organism. They do so without incorporating foreign genetic material into the genome of the cell.

In 2012 Scion asked the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to determine whether trees produced using ZFN-1 and TALES technologies would be considered to be genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The EPA's opinion was that such trees would not be GMOs.

However, his week the decision was overturned by the high court following an appeal from the Sustainability Council of New Zealand.

The court's decision ruled that ZFN-1 and TALEs techniques did in fact constitute genetic modification and any resulting organism would be a GMO, controlled under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996. The decision noted that the regulations relating to the Act were "not well drafted" leading to differing interpretations.

"Our regulators need to be able to apply sound scientific principles to decision-making," said Elspeth MacRae, Scion's General Manager of Manufacturing and Bioproducts in a media release.

"In this instance, the two technologies - "ZFN-1" and "TALEs" - alter the genetic code of an organism but without the introduction of foreign genetic material into the genome of the cell. The technologies allow targeted mutations that are more precise and scientifically predictable than mutations achieved through traditional breeding methods."

The SMC collected commentary from New Zealand experts on the decision:

Associate Professor Peter Dearden, Director of Genetics Otago, University of Otago, comments:

"This High Court decision indicates a problem with the legal definition of a 'genetically modified organism' in New Zealand, which has consequences for science, agriculture and pest control."

Dr Tony Conner, Science Group Leader - Forage Improvement, AgResearch, comments:

"...the High Court decision highlights that New Zealand's regulatory system on genetic modification is broken. Changes need to be made urgently, otherwise further innovation in New Zealand's genetic research will be severely stifled."

You can read further expert commentary on the Science Media centre website.

The Friday video...

Time-Lapse Supercell Thunderstorm

Policy news and developments

WHO Committee: Sir Peter Gluckman has been appointed by the WHO to co-chair the Commission to end Childhood Obesity, tasked with identifying the most effective approaches in tackling childhood obesity in different contexts around the globe.

Modern census: Statistics Minister Nicky Wagner has announced a new internet first model will transform how the census is delivered and collected, and will increase the use of administrative data.

Govt - industry agreement: MPI and Kiwifruit Vine Health (KVH) have signed a partnership on preparing for priority pests and diseases, and on managing them if an incursion occurs.

Waste feedback: MfE is seeking views on a discussion document on possible options to improve the way some waste products are managed in New Zealand, especially those which can cause harm to the environment.

Conservation boards: Associate Conservation Minister Nicky Wagner this week announced 124 appointments to the 14 Conservation Boards around the country.
Quoted: Sunday Star Times

"It doesn't matter if you are worried about becoming a crazy cat lady, or the growing evidence of links between toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia or even traffic accidents.

"The fact is that this is a scary, mind-altering parasite that scientists are just starting to understand."

Economist and Cats-To-Go campaigner Dr Gareth Morgan on the parasiteToxoplasma gondii.

New From the SMC

Experts respond:

GMO decision: Experts respond to a high court decision on genetically modified organisms and new techniques.

E-cigs: A New Zealand expert comments on new research intoelctronic cigarettes and quitting smoking.


Kiwi origins: New research reveals a twist in the evolution of New Zealand's most iconic bird.
Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:

Left-handed myths and the origin of language - Lynley Hargreaves gets hands-on with Prof Michael Corballis' research.
Infrequently Asked Questions

You are what your mother ate - Neuroscientist Christine Jasoni talks about her research showing how maternal obesity changes the way the fetal brain forms.

The value and values of water - Suzie Greenhalgh, Jim Sinner and Natasha Berkett un-muddy the waters on environmental values - monetary and otherwise.


Research highlights

Some of the research papers making headlines this week.

Small island, big seeds: Research from Victoria University Wellington scientists has for the first time shown that island plants grow larger seeds than mainland relatives, drawing on data from 40 species growing on islands around New Zealand. The authors suggests that plants evolve larger seeds to prevent them travelling too far and getting lost in the sea.
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Stem cell meat treats: In a new paper, Dutch authors outline a manufacturing process for stem cell derived meat, saying the process could be an ethical and greener source for meat. "Worries about its unnaturalness might be met through small-scale production methods that allow close contact with cell-donor animals, thereby reversing feelings of alienation," say the authors.
Trends in Biotechnology

Bee dancing reports on environment: By spying on bees' honey dances, which direct fellow bees to the location of nectar, researchers have been able to ascertain the quality of the surrounding environment. The authors say honeybees can serve as bioindicators to monitor large land areas and provide information relevant to better environmental management

Current Biology

Newborn death a global issue, slow progress in NZ: A major new series of papers, published the Lancet, presents the clearest picture to date of progress and challenges in improving newborn survival around the world, and sets targets that must be achieved by 2030 in order to ensure every newborn has a healthy start. New Zealand ranks fifth in the top ten countries showing the slowest progress in reducing the neonatal mortality rate.
The Lancet

Physio hip therapy fail: Among adults with painful hip osteoarthritis, physical therapy did not result in greater improvement in pain or function compared with a placebo treatment, but was associated with relatively frequent but mild adverse effects, raising questions about its value for these patients, according to Australian and New Zealand clinicians.

Upcoming sci-tech events

For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.

• 'One Health' - Molecular Diagnostics Workshop with the National Centre for Biosecurity and Infectious Disease -27-28 May, Upper Hutt.

• What if nutrition could treat mental illness? - 'What if'Wednesday lecture with Prof Julia Rucklidge - 28 May, Christchurch.

• Great tit genomics - gene mapping goes wild! Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity Seminar from Dr Anna Santure - 29 May, Auckland.

• Science Express: Science and Civilisation in China -31 May, Wellington.

• Ripples from the Big Bang: Listening to the Beginning of Time - World Science Festival discussion livestreamed from New York plus Q&A with Prof Richard Easther - 31 May, Auckland.


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