In a stunning feat of scientific prowess, a large group of scientists has completely sequenced the genomes of 48 different bird species. Well, actually getting all those A’s, G’s, C’s and T’s wasn’t the big deal. This part gets easier and easier.
No, the really hard part of the project was organizing and managing all of that data. The researchers needed to create new computational tools and use over 300 years of computing time to take the data and use it to create an evolutionary tree for these 48 birds. No wonder this part of the project took over three years!
This will be a common theme in the big genome projects to come. Sequencing will be easy, managing the data hard. Hopefully what these researchers learned can be used to help future researchers deal more easily with these mountains of data.
Even though it took a lot of work, this bird project was definitely worth it. These scientists learned a whole lot about birds and their evolutionary history that couldn’t be learned any other way.
For example, they found that the patterns of genes that are turned on for birdsong are similar to the ones that are turned on for human speech. That blue jay is using some of the same genes to sing that Taylor Swift uses! This is just one of their many findings about how modern birds work.
Their biggest findings, though, were about the evolutionary history of birds. For example, the researchers could see in bird DNA an explosive burst of diversity that happened between 67 and 50 million years ago. Most likely birds first flocked to and then adapted to the new niches made available when most of the dinosaurs were wiped out.