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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

UGA: Genomic Tools Illuminate Bird Evolution, Blaze a Trail for Public Health

Scientists have reconstructed the tree of life for all major lineages of perching birds, also known as passerines, a large and diverse group of more than 6,000 species that includes familiar birds like cardinals, warblers, jays, and sparrows.

Using 221 bird specimens from 48 countries, researchers at Louisiana State University and the University of Georgia extracted and sequenced thousands of pieces of DNA representing all passerine families to study when and how passerines diversified in relation to Earth’s history.

The study, published in PNAS, is the most comprehensive work to date on passerine evolution – and it advances the use of DNA technology to better understand the genetic makeup of other species, including health-harming pathogens.

This project has been ten years in the making, says co-author Dr. Travis Glenn, an associate professor of environmental health science at the University of Georgia College of Public Health.

Dr. Glenn began developing the DNA technology used in the current study when lead author Dr. Brant Faircloth, now an assistant professor in the LSU Department of Biological Sciences, was a doctoral student at UGA.

The unique benefit of this DNA technology, says Dr. Glenn, is not only does it make it feasible to use the same set of genetic markers for studies on thousands of species, but it also allows scientists to compare genomes across species.

“It’s a way of pulling out repeatable portions of a genome, so that you’re comparing apples to apples among different species,” he said.

Scientists can employ the methods used here to identify unknown members of any species, including bacteria, says Glenn, who is now leveraging these DNA tools in studies ranging from bacterial communities in healthcare settings to ticks and tick-borne diseases.

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