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UNM Ornithologists Discover Flight Causes Genome Shrinkage


It has long been known that birds and bats have small genomes, but the cause was uncertain. Now researchers at the University of New Mexico have shown that the genome shrinks over evolutionary time in species that spend lots of energy on flight. This discovery is described in a new paper titled, “Metabolic ‘engines’ of flight drive genome size reduction in birds,” published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, by UNM Department of Biology graduate student Natalie Wright and Associate Professor Christopher Witt.

“Natalie had realized that the size of a bird’s flight muscles determines its capacity for producing bursts of energy, and energy use is hugely important in evolution” said Witt, who is the Curator of Birds at UNM’s Museum of Southwestern Biology (MSB). “Comparing the flight muscles of different species provided us with a clever way to test the effects of energy use on the evolution of the genome. Fortunately, our museum here at UNM has bird specimens from all over the world that have been carefully preserved to allow this kind of study.” Read more (UNM Newsroom).