University of Otago researchers are working on an "ambitious"
project to map the tuatara's genome, which, when completed,
will be one of the biggest genomes assembled.
Prof Neil Gemmell said the project had attracted interest
from the international science community due to the
uniqueness of the species as the only member of an archaic
This meant the species was a link to the now extinct stem
reptiles from which dinosaurs, modern reptiles, birds and
This and the importance of the species to New Zealanders
meant it was an exciting project to work on, Prof Gemmell
"There are few things that are more iconic in New Zealand's
fauna than the tuatara."
Having a genome sequence could help conserve the species by
providing information on how it wards off disease. It could
also add to knowledge about how global warming might affect
the ratio of females to males, with sex being determined by
the temperature of eggs during incubation.
"With rising temperatures you tend to get more males, so
there is a suggestion that if climatic change continues in
the direction that it is, then we may get a more male-biased
Mapping of the DNA began in May and the entire project was
expected to be completed by the end of next year, he said.
Prof Gemmell said the tuatara's genome had between five
billion and six billion base pairs of DNA sequence, compared
to three billion in the human genome.
The project had compiled about 300 billion base pairs of
information, which took up about two terabytes of data.
Prof Gemmell said the tuatara had been identified as being
among the 100 most important species to have their DNA
The project was funded by the Allan Wilson Centre and
supported by the Otago University Centre for Reproduction and
Genomics, New Zealand Genomics and Illumina Asia Pacific.
The researchers worked alongside Northland-based iwi
Ngatiwai, which has guardianship over one of New Zealand's
largest populations of tuatara, to get blood samples.