Sequencing a living fossil – the tuatara genome project

The tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) is iconic, unique to New Zealand and perha5f039859d111be5d7d6df76d5e137c16 w1170 h960 cpps one of the most enigmatic of our terrestrial vertebrates.  Once widespread across the supercontinent of Gondwana, tuatara are now restricted to a small number of offshore Islands in Cook Strait and the north of the North Island, New Zealand. 

Via a collaboration with Ngātiwai and funding and support from the Allan Wilson Centre, Centre for Reproduction and Genomics, NZGL, and Illumina; we have begun to sequence the genome of this internationally iconic species as part of the Genome 10K initiative. 

The reasons for sequencing the tuatara genome are manyfold. Foremost among these is that the tuatara is phylogenetically unique; the only living member of an archaic reptilian order Rynchocephalia (Sphenodontia) that last shared a common ancestor with the rest of the reptiles some 220-250 Mya.

As such they represent a key link to the now extinct stem reptiles from which dinosaurs, modern reptiles, birds and mammals evolved, providing unique insight into what those early vertebrate ancestors may have been like.

In addition, we anticipate that the tuatara genome will generate major insight into the evolution not only of vertebrates but also of key biological systems including those involved in sex determination, chromosome inactivation and regulation, immunity, homeostasis and others.

The tuatara is currently recognised as being vulnerable to extinction due to habitat loss, predation, disease, global warming and other factors. Having a representative genome sequence for tuatara would greatly aid efforts to conserve these species in a number of ways, including for example aiding in the identification of genes that might be important in conferringresistance or susceptibility to disease, and understanding the genetic basis of the local adaptations found among isolated populations of this species which span the sub-tropical far north through to the more temperate Cook Strait. 

Collaborators: Ngātiwai, Dr Mik Black (University of Otago), Dr Rob Day (University of Otago), Dr Thomas Buckley (Landcare Research),Dr Becky Laurie (University of Otago), Dr. Hilary Miller (Biomatters), Dr Nicola Nelson (Victoria University of Wellington), Prof. Scott Edwards (Harvard University), Dept. of Conservation, New Zealand Genomics Ltd, Biomatters Ltd, Genome 10K consortium.