By Heather Lerner
Last week, you heard from Ivan Babic about the first analyses for our harpy eagle genome project. In this post, I’ll tell you how the project all began, a surprising story, and introduce the harpy eagle we are sequencing.
A little over a year ago, I answered my phone and found myself talking about harpy eagles with Josh Akey, a genomicist from the University of Washington. Josh’s sons are raptor enthusiasts and he overheard one saying “I’m going to sequence the harpy eagle genome, because no one is doing it!” Which made him wonder if anyone was planning to sequence the harpy eagle genome and, if not, would it be a useful project. So he called me. After checking around with other labs, obtaining an estimate for the size of the harpy genome and finding a blood donor, here we are a year later, analyzing sequences from the harpy eagle genome!
Our harpy eagle, Luigi, is a bird from the Peregrine Fund’s facility in Panama. He was living in Boise, Idaho, when Cal Sandfort agreed to collect a small vial of blood for our study. Luigi has since moved to NaturalEncounters in Florida.
Last August, Rachel Wadleigh, Bailey Heinzen and I extracted DNA from Luigi’s blood sample and sent it on to Josh and Dayna Akey in Washington. Having worked primarily with mammals whose blood cells are not nucleated and therefore do not contain genomic DNA, they were thrilled at how much DNA we could extract from Luigi’s blood. That’s because bird blood is nucleated!
In the intervening year, Josh and Dayna have been working on sequencing the harpy eagle, with prodding from their sons and our Earlham students, who couldn’t wait to work on the genome. This fall semester Ivan Babic, Ashley Hedrick, Bailey Heinzen, Sonia Kabra, Rachel Wadleigh, and I are working together with the harpy eagle sequences to see what we can learn from this unexpected genome. Each week, one of the five students or I will post an update here, so you can follow our progress. Do you have a burning question about harpy eagles that we could test with our data? Let us know!