Last week I participated in the annual meeting of the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology & Evolution. Allan Wilson was a Professor of Biochemistry at UC Berkeley who grew up on a small farm just down the road from me in New Zealand. He pioneered the use of molecular approaches to understand evolutionary change and reconstruct phylogenies, and made major contributions to the study of human evolution. A documentary detailing his life work was recently made. In recognition of his contribution, one of New Zealand’s Centres of Research Excellence was named after him. The Centre provides a collaborative network for researchers in biology, ecology and mathematics unified by evolutionary biology, and its annual meeting is a fantastic opportunity for the over 100 researchers associated with the centre to share their latest research.
Some of the Allan Wilson Centre’s other interesting research includes sequencing the genome of New Zealand’s endemic and enigmatic tuatara, something we learnt last week was much harder than anticipated given the sheer size of the genome (nearly 5 Gb = giga base-pairs). We also learnt about efforts to use next-generation sequencing of environmental DNA as a biodiversity monitoring tool, where field trials have taken place on Hauturu-O-Toi (Little Barrier Island). The Allan Wilson Centre also runs an impressive outreach program in Gisborne linking in with the Uawanui Restoration project. Scientists from the centre lend their expertise to practitioners and communities on the ground enacting restoration. As part of this project I am hoping in the next few weeks to visit some of the offshore islands of Tolaga Bay and survey them for rodents and seabirds. One of the Allan Wilson Centre’s principal investigators – Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith, is also an investigator in the The National Geographic genographic team, which also visited Gisborne recently as part of their global study.