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BGI, NOAA Fisheries, and The Nature Conservancy Announce Partnership to Help Endangered Orcas
Publish Date: 2018-10-05

New Genetic Research Part of Ongoing Effort to Save Killer Whales

SEATTLE, WA, October 4, 2018 NOAA Fisheries, The Nature Conservancy, and global genomics leader BGI are collaborating to sequence the genomes of members of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale (orca) population, which will provide new information to save them from extinction.

Southern Resident orcas are recognized for their cultural and spiritual importance to coastal tribes and communities and integral role in the marine ecosystem. However, these striking black and white mammals are currently among the most endangered marine mammals in the world. They have declined in the last decade, with only 74 whales remaining.

While noise, disturbance by boat traffic, chemical contaminants and a scarcity of their primary food source -- Chinook salmon, threaten the survival of Southern Resident orcas. Researchers are hoping to learn more about them by unraveling the information in their genes.

Recent genetic studies have found some evidence of inbreeding in the population that may affect their survival. The potential consequences of inbreeding, such as disease and inbreeding depression, can impair their health in ways scientists hope to better understand. 

BGI will contribute the sequencing and analysis of more than 100 whale genomes to support the project. This is one of the first attempts to sequence the entire genome of nearly every member of an endangered wildlife population.

“The plight of the endangered orcas has convinced us we can make a difference for their recovery,” said Mr. Yiwu He, CEO of BGI Groups USA in Seattle. “We want to bring science to bear to provide the information necessary to recover the whales in the long term.”

The collaborative research project involves analyzing the full genome sequences of more than 100 living and deceased Southern Residents based on previously collected samples. BGI will sequence their genomes and share the results with scientists at NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle and other researchers who will help interpret the results.

The Nature Conservancy will contribute its experience and insight in practical application of the research findings, supplementing the many dedicated efforts underway in Puget Sound, from salmon restoration to the health of marine ecosystems.

The genetic information will support an effort by NOAA Fisheries in partnership with the SeaDoc Society to develop individual health profiles for each whale, which will also help document trends or factors affecting the whole population.

“We have learned a lot about how external factors like disturbance and lack of prey are impacting the whales,” said Mr. Michael Ford, Director of the Conservation Biology Division at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “This project will help us learn whether internal factors, like inbreeding or variation in the genes underlying the whales’ immune system, are also holding the population back.” 

BGI, as global genomics company, has deep expertise in sequencing the whole genomes of humans, plants, and animals. About 70 percent of the plants and animals sequenced to date have been sequenced by BGI and its partners.

 Whole genome sequencing facilitates ongoing research by creating a resource that can be used by scientists again and again as more genetic links are uncovered.

The collaboration will utilize samples collected over more than 10 years under a NOAA Fisheries permit. The DNA sequences of the Southern Resident Killer Whales will be compared to those of a growing Alaska population of killer whales provided by the North Gulf Oceanic Society (of Homer, Alaska) in order to provide additional context and to aid in interpretation of the results. Initial results are expected sometime next year.

“This partnership between conservation science and advanced biotechnology expands the kinds of knowledge we have to diagnose problems with our environments and iconic species, and opens up new possibilities for innovative solutions,” said Mr. Phil Levin, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy in Washington and a Professor of Practice at the University of Washington. “Emerging technology allows us to think differently about the problems facing Puget Sound, and offers new hope for imperiled species and habitats.”