By Peter Dearden 26/07/2015

Last year I had the good fortune to visit Vienna for a conference. While there I visited the Naturhistorisches Museum, because I like these kinds of places.

This one was a bit dark, and smelt ferociously of mothballs, but had some very cool stuff. However, I was a bit shocked to find in the bird section a case with about 14 dead kakapo in it.

In fact looking around the birds, many of them originated in New Zealand, many now rare and endangered. The reason for this is Ferdinand von Hochstetter, an Austrian Naturalist who came to New Zealand in 1859, and was one of the first europeans to describe our flora and fauna. He eventually became superintendent of the Imperial Natural History Museum, now the Naturhistorisches Museum, in Vienna.

This is not unusual, I worked for a time at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, which is full of New Zealand birds donated by Walter Buller. Even the Moa, whose bones were obviously collected in New Zealand, was described by Richard Owen, founder of the Natural History Museum in London, who took all the credit.

All this fits into the noble traditions of europeans traveling to various parts of the world, collecting animals and plants and describing them, an activity that did much for our scientific understanding of the world. But it is a sort of colonialism.

You might think this has ended, but this week a German group published the genome of the Kiwi. The paper has no New Zealand group working with it, but did have links to Prof Dave Lambert, who worked at Massey some years ago, but does no longer.

New Zealand is a treasure trove of unusual organisms, organisms that will tell us much about our place in the world, the evolution of life on earth, and may be economically important. These treasures, or Taonga, are linked inextricably both with the evolutionary history this place, and the world view of the indigenous people of New Zealand. It is not necessary, nor appropriate, for these to be scientifically investigated overseas with no links to their place of origin.

The Kiwi genome paper is a good paper, the people who wrote it are good people, but there is nothing in it that could not be done here. Indeed, given access to more samples, we could have done a better job of it. We have the machines to do the sequencing, we have incredibly talented people with the expertise to analyse it and we have the people who understand the Kiwi.

So why didn’t we? One answer to that question is most likely funding. We don’t have funding to do this, and it would be hard to see what funding source might let us sequence a genome like this. That is not to say that we aren’t sequencing genomes. I, and other New Zealand groups, have been involved in many overseas ones, and, with Phil Lester and team at Victoria University, are sequencing the common wasp genome to find new ways to control it. There are other examples.

Another answer, though probably not a big one, may be Māori consultation. For this work to be done in New Zealand, it really needs to be done in partnership with Māori. This is not a bad thing, indeed it is the correct thing to do. Māori should be consulted, be involved, indeed be doing the work, on the species over which they have guardianship. This is vitally important. But overseas groups do not have to. They may have samples from years ago in their freezers, or even samples from the great age of colonial science. If the genome of Neanderthals can be sequenced from semi-fossilised bones, then Taonga genomes can be sequenced from old museum specimens, without even talking to a New Zealander.

Should we let this happen? I think we have no choice. Groups with an interest in these species will sequence them, and they will get the samples from wherever is convenient. If we believe that New Zealand’s Taonga genomes should be sequenced and analysed in New Zealand, in partnership with Māori, and that information made available for New Zealanders, then the only way to stop this happening overseas is to do it ourselves.

So, I propose a 100 Taonga genomes project, working with proper consultation, in partnership with Māori, to investigate our our biological heritage. We should sequence the genomes, with an eye on our unique biological heritage, of at least 100 New Zealand species.

Sequencing the genomes of 100 of our biological treasures will ensure that New Zealand species are not seen as a resource to be plundered by overseas groups. This will ensure the knowledge gained, some of which will be commercially important, vital for conservation and of huge interest scientifically, will be gained by, with, and for New Zealanders. It will also ensure, most importantly, that this work is done in partnership with those who hold kaitiakitanga over the land.

If you think that we need to take action, avoid a new era of scientific colonialism and learn ourselves about our unique biological treasures, then let me know in the comments below.

We can, should, and with your help, will, do this.

0 Responses to “Taonga Genomes”

  • Nice post, Peter, and I’m glad you’ve followed up on the twitter conversation. I thought I’d just leave a link to a recent interview with a scientist who worked on the recent finding of a four-legged snake fossil here, for those who might doubt that science colonialism is still alive and well in some places. We must do better than this, and that implies, I think, that NZ has a responsibility to take the science of its Taonga seriously.

  • A collection of scientists are drafting a proposal for this. I’m currently curating the document for this under an open collaboration, and will present a link to it once it’s in a form suitable to be generally read. (If you’re a researcher interested in this, let me know.)

    I’ve also added a note that on-line resources developed as part of these efforts can be useful hubs for information about the species being studied beyond ‘just’ the genome itself and that there may be are few opportunities around this useful in a NZ setting.:

  • Heidi, I’ve emailed you – thanks for your interest. It would be good to have someone help out with the forest trees – in particular reasons why they’d be interesting would help.

  • […] The kiwi (Apteryx, not Actinidia) genome was recently sequenced by a non-NZ research group. There’s a push for NZ-led sequencing of nationally-significant genomes: a taonga genomes project […]

  • Peter, I read this with a sense of sadness that it has happened and didn’t realise it has been published, it is certainly not in the media here in NZ. Our national icon, genome sequenced but by the Europeans. I would certainly support an effort towards the 100 Taonga Genomes project. It does need some champions to drive this forward. I am thinking NZGL, the museums in New Zealand, Otago, Te Papa. Funding is always an issue, is it a big enough issue to get Government on board with this? Of course (cheap jibe, but 26 million on consultation about the NZ flag is a lotta genomes!) . I love to help and support this cause. Rally the troops. Nick.

  • Hi Peter. VERY important! Hopefully you get the funding. Philip Wilcox, at your University will of course be interested.

  • Sounds like a very good idea. Quite a difficult job to settle on 100 I imagine! It would be good to cover a wide range of organisms, yes absolutely including forest trees, and of course I’d like to see some marine plants in there too.