How DNA sequencing kākāpō birds could save them from deadly diseases and infertility

The DNA sequencing of our entire kākāpō population could help save the critically-endangered bird from deadly diseases and infertility.

It's thanks to the genome sequencing of their DNA by a team of scientists from Genomics Aotearoa.

Co-director Peter Deardon told Newshub the research will give the nocturnal, flightless parrot a brighter future.

"In the future, we might all be hearing kākāpō booming in the hills outside our homes,"  he said.

A sound few of us have heard, as there are only 248 kākāpō in New Zealand.

The population has doubled since 2016 due to massive conservation efforts, but the bird is still on the brink of extinction.

"They are only at a few sites, we have issues like disease and we have infertility," said the Department of Conservation kākāpō science advisor Dr Andrew Digby.

Those issues prompted scientists and the Department of Conservation (DoC) to spend the past eight years collecting and analysing kākāpō DNA.

“Kākāpō suffers from disease and low reproductive output, so by understanding the genetic reasons for these problems, we can now help mitigate them," Digby said.

"It gives us the ability to predict things like kākāpō chick growth and susceptibility to disease, which changes our on-the-ground management practices and will help improve survival rates."

To sequence the bird's DNA, the scientists used an artificial intelligence tool designed for human genomics and repurposed it for kākāpō to to identify the specific genetic characteristics key to its survival.

"We can use this information to start predicting the health of kākāpō populations hundreds of years into the future," Deardon said.

"Our modelling will help us better deal with threats and diseases."

His colleague, Dr Joseph Guhlin, said their work means the kākāpō now has the best quality DNA data set in the world.

“Using technology created by Google, we have achieved what is likely the highest quality variant dataset for any endangered species in the world," Dr Guhlin said.

"This dataset is made available, through DoC and Ngāi Tahu, for future researchers working with kākāpō," he added.

The research is not only a big win for kākāpō but has massive implications for other critically endangered species in New Zealand and around the world because it's created a blueprint for affordable conservation genomics.

"As the cost comes down and as the tools are available I think this is going to be transformative," said Dearden.

It's a glimmer of hope for more than just the kākāpō.