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Alana Alexander

Dr Alana Alexander (Photo: Supplied)

2018: Dr Alana Alexander, University of Otago, has been awarded a Rutherford foundation postdoctoral fellowship for research entitled: “Hologenomics for conservation: a first test of utility.”

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Dr Alana Alexander (Photo: Supplied)

Hologenomics takes a holistic approach to genome sequencing where the DNA of the host animal as well as its co-existing microbes (microbiome) is sequenced. This approach is important because we are beginning to recognise that an organism’s appearance, behaviour, and health result from complex interactions between its genome, its microbiome, and its environment. 

Dr Alana Alexander, University of Otago, has been awarded a Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship to investigate for the first time whether hologenomic approaches can answer key questions in conservation biology.  Hologenetics may be particularly important in conservation as variation within the hologenome allows for more rapid adaptation to local environments than can be achieved through host genomic variation alone. These rapid genetic changes can lead to reproductive isolation between lineages and influence disease susceptibility of individuals.

The New Zealand endemic Maui dolphins (population size: ~65 individuals) and Hector’s dolphins (>9,130 individuals) provide a compelling test case of the utility of hologenomics for conservation.  There remains significant uncertainty about crossbreeding between these two subspecies, the degree of population fluctuation, inbreeding and disease susceptibility, and the ongoing impact of human activities such as fishing.  Hologenomics could be an important tool for us to understand the mechanisms behind these issues.  Dr Alexander will use an extensive database of individual Hector’s and Maui dolphins and will sequence the DNA genomes of a subset of 48 individuals and their associated microbiomes to address these questions.

This would provide a first ‘proof-of-concept’ study with the potential to revolutionise conservation biology on a global scale, as well as improve management of New Zealand’s only endemic dolphins. The hologenome-for-conservation research paradigm could then be applied to other threatened species including New Zealand taonga such as the takahē and weta.