Key research projects
Ancient DNA tools to estimate rates of molecular change animal species
The tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) found only in New Zealand, is the last surviving member of a distinct reptilian order Sphenodontia that lived alongside early dinosaurs and separated from other reptiles in the Upper Triassic more than 220 million years ago. The skeletal morphology of modern tuatara show a remarkable similarity to some Cretaceous sphenodontian fossils which has led to them being described as a “living fossil”. In addition to their stable morphology, tuatara are characterized by several distinct physiological features that are uncommon among reptiles. They have a low body temperature (they are active down to 5°C in the wild); slow rates of growth (~50 cm in 35 years); a slow metabolism; a long generation time (sexual maturity at 10-15 years); and a slow reproductive rate (at 2-5 year intervals). Our current work involves estimating mutation and evolutionary rates for entire mitochondrial genome of the tuatara.
Adélie penguins from Antarctica
The pristine Antarctic environment has led to a high concentration of deposits of penguin remains in the ornithogenic soils underlying existing and abandoned colonies (Ugolini, 1972; Baroni & Orombelli, 1994). These remains are well preserved because Antarctica is the coldest and driest continent on earth. Over the last 55,000 years at least, Adélie penguins have survived major temperature fluctuations. At the end of the last glacial maximum (LGM), average temperatures in the Antarctic were down to -10oC. During the interglacial warming period temperatures rose dramatically over a relatively short period of time and stabilised at an elevated temperature which signalled the beginning of the Holocene period ~10,000 years ago. The unique continuous record of temperature changes in the Antarctic (Petit et al., 1999) were measured at Vostock in the Antarctic, close to the Ross Sea Adélie penguin colonies which are the subject of this study. Our research has involved the use of modern and ancient samples of this species to detect evolutionary change itself (Shepherd et al., 2005) and to estimate the rate change (Lambert et al., 2002; Ritchie et al., 2004) and the mutational processes that give rise to this variation (Millar et al., 2008).
Molecular Studies of Polynesian Cloaks
Kakahu or Maori cloaks are taonga. They are as unique to New Zealand and many parts of the Pacific. They represent iconic expressions of Polynesian culture. Unfortunately much of the original information relating to the ‘origins of the cloaks’ has been lost. Using a combination of traditional knowledge and ancient DNA technology, we are now able to unravel some of the mysteries of cloak construction and the traditions surrounding the collection of materials used. Our team is working to recover information about the species, sex and geographic provenance of the feathers used to make cloaks. In this way we will be able to test the suggestion that feathers were traded among tribes for cloak making, along with valuable items such as greenstone and titi. Similarly, we also propose molecular studies of the kuri (dog) that were used to make the earliest cloaks, kahu kuri and of the harakeke (flax) used to make the Korowai Kaupapa or body of the cloak, in later years. By comparison with reference samples, these data allow us to document the geographic provenance of cloaks and kete. This study will then greatly enhance the cultural value of these important artefacts by allowing their stories to be told, once again.
DNA Barcoding of avian species
DNA barcoding stems from the proposition that individuals can be easily identified, to the species level, using short ‘signature’ regions of the genome. There is currently intense international interest in this suggestion. Furthermore, it has been argued that such an approach will complement modern taxonomy, while at the same time revolutionize the way we routinely identify species. Indeed supporters of this view have suggested that DNA barcoding will not only change the way we study extant biodiversity, but will also allow us to better assess the composition of past life on earth (Lambert et al., 2005). However, this goal requires a database of species barcodes. In collaboration with Craig Millar’s group at the University of Auckland, we are working to construct a DNA database of the entire avian faunas of New Zealand and the Antarctic using the mitochondrial gene cytochrome c oxidase (COI). The general goal of this project is to test the accuracy of DNA barcoding in identifying Southern Hemisphere avian species and more generally to contribute to the worldwide effort to DNA barcode the birds of the world (http://www.barcodingbirds.org/).
Current PhD Projects
A range of possible projects for graduates students are available. These continue themes already established in the laboratory and use methods well established.
Recent funding success: In collaboration with Dr Siva Swaminathan from the Environment Protection Training and Research Institute in Hyderabad we have been awarded a grant from the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund for a project entitled “Does climate change drive evolution?”.
We have also been awarded funding from Griffith University for a new DNA sequencing and real time PCR facilities.
- Dr Craig Millar, University of Auckland, New Zealand
- Prof Carlo Baroni, University of Piza, Italy
- Prof Allan Baker, University of Toronto, Canada
- Dr Steve Emslie, University of North Carolina, USA
- Rangi Te Kanawa, Te Papa, New Zealand
- Dr Dee Denver, University of Oregon, USA
- Dr Gimme Walter, University of Queensland, Australia
- Dr Les Christidis, Australian Museum, Australia
- Dr Janette Norman, Victoria Museum, Australia
- Dr Paul Scofield, Canterbury Museum, New Zealand
- Dr Brian Gill, Auckland Museum, New Zealand
- Prof Juan Carlos Belmonte, Salk Institute, USA
- Prof Salima Ikram, American University in Cairo, Egypt
- Prof Mark Spigelman, University College London, UK
- Dr David Ainley, T. Harvey & Associates, USA
Previous graduate students and postdoctoral staff
- Dr Peter Ritchie, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
- Prof Lisa Matisoo-Smith, University of Otago, New Zealand
- Prof Dee Denver, University of Oregon, USA