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Boys Cloning Birds

It ain't extinct unless the DNA's dead, as this winning entry in this year's School Science Journalism competition demonstrates. Chris Perry, from Hasting Boy's High School, wins $150 courtesy of JADE and a gift book from Penguin Books.

Chris Perry

At Hastings Boys' High School, science fiction isn't just a myth. We are trying to bring back our school emblem from the dead! The huia has been extinct for the past seventy years but we hope to clone it to life again.

Already boys in "the Huia Project" have achieved huge success. We've run experiments to decide what tissue is the best for DNA extraction, we've extracted DNA, we've karyotyped DNA, and we've sequenced huia DNA. We are still a long way from cloning, but we're rapidly turning the impossible into the possible!

The Huia is a very special bird to all New Zealanders. It is especially significant to Hastings Boys' High School and has been worn proudly as our school emblem for nearly 100 years. It was also sacred to the traditional Maori people. It was seen as the most beautiful bird of Tane Mahuta, and only high ranking chiefs were permitted to wear its sacred tail feathers. So special is this bird that, 70 years after its extinction, an old boy from HBHS, Dr Rhys Cullen, generously supported the development of "The Huia Project".

Dr Cullen had to use his powers of persuasion to get this project off the ground. HBHS is very proud to be a traditional boys' school and "something like this requires a sense of adventure from a 96 year-old state school", said Dr Cullen. Why? "Because it's a crazy idea" he laughed. Having convinced the staff that this was a worthwhile and educational project, he took the quick way to the boys' hearts -- "he just fed us roast chicken and chocolate when he wanted us to work, and promised us a trip to Dunedin to do the practical experimental work if our theory work was successful".

After ten weeks of learning about DNA sequencing (7th form biology level), a group of four juniors travelled to Otago University and successfully carried out the practical work under the supervision of Dr Tebutt, a university researcher. The huia DNA that we sequenced had been previously extracted at Otago University by two 7th formers from HBHS. The next step is to insert the nucleus from a huia cell into a host embryo, and remove all the traces of host DNA from that embryo. Then we must place the embryo back in the host bird at the beginning of its journey to become an egg. The egg will then hatch the first huia seen alive in 70 years. Not as easy as it sounds but we're having great fun working on it.

We're also learning to consider every aspect of a seemingly simple idea, and avoid the mistakes that come from narrow vision. Cloning the huia sounds simple, but there is more than just science to consider. For the first eight months Dr Cullen made us explore the morals and ethics of cloning, to make sure we fully understood the depth of what we were attempting to do. These studies concluded with a national conference held over two days at Hastings Boys' High School.

One topic that was debated widely at this conference was whether there is an obligation under the Treaty of Waitangi for the Crown to bring back the huia, if this is possible by cloning. There were varied opinions from both Maori and pakeha. Speeches from students discussed arguments for and against there being an obligation, with no consensus reached. One argument was that as both Maori and pakeha had contributed significantly to the demise of the huia, Maori cannot claim back what they threw away. Another question raised was that of who can claim rights to the huia; when the Treaty was signed in 1840, the people of Aotearoa were signing permission for pakeha to be on the land without "changing their rights to forest and fisheries". But now, 160 years later, who are the people of Aotearoa? Who has rights to the huia? Lastly, even if we do succeed in cloning a huia, will it have the cultural significance of the original bird? Will it be a bird of Tane Mahuta, or will it be a bird of man?

This conference was a huge success. Scientific participants were made aware of other issues affecting science. A school was spearheading the joining of morals and ethics with science. Heady stuff for teenage boys.

It seems that Jurassic Park isnt' impossible and students from Hastings Boys' High School are out to prove that. Before we are let loose on dinosaur DNA however, we know that we must stop and consider the morals, ethics and consequences of our scientific proposals. "The Huia Project" has taught us that.

The following extracts come from entires which were highly commended in the competition. Each writer receives a prize book courtesy of Penguin Books NZ.

Genetically Modified Foods

Rebecca Lewis

As our imaginations run riot we must wake up to the realisation of the implications the alteration of genes have on our future. The idea is exciting, promising and unlimited but New Zealand cannot ignore the issues. The major problem with the artificial altering of DNA is that we are unable to predict the future of a modified gene in the wild, thereby opening complex ethical, safety and spiritual issues. Conservationists believe that it is a manipulation of our food supply for profit and by using genetically altered products we have broken the boundaries of "Natural Law". They see the invention as perhaps too new and potentially too hazardous to take out of laboratories and place on our food menu.

Most scientists disagree and continue to stand behind the new biotechnology stating that it is just an extension of traditional crossbreeding. They believe that we must embrace the new biotechnology to survive, holding that Genetically Engineered products have the potential to revolutionise our Health System, our Food System and our Energy Systems. Some scientists even go so far as to say that without the biotechnology there will be no salvation for the developing countries, no cure for famine. The race is on as corporations scramble to become involved with what is likely to become the most important investment of this century. An inevitable feature, it seems, of our modern life.

Space Colonisation

Peter Butchard

At present the technology for the colonisation of space is available but it is no where near economically viable, since minerals and living space are still available on Earth. But some scientists predict that perhaps as soon as in 100-200 years if we continue in our current destructive trend, that could all change.

Minerals could become so scarce that their worth would sky rocket thus outweighing the cost of extracting them from bodies in space. Also living space could be completely used up on Earth, leaving [us] with no option but to leave. The more people there are the more food that must be produced to feed them. But the more people there are, the more room which is wasted in cities to house them which occupies land needed for food production.

Resisting the Alien Invasion

Catherine Woulfe

New Zealand's unique biodiversity is under attack from "alien invaders" -- introduced organisms that are wreaking havoc on our forests, seas and native species. Eighteen million years of isolation left our ecosystems vulnerable, defenceless against the invaders that jump our borders -- invaders introduced, in almost every case, by humans. Human neglect and naivety has forced New Zealand's biodiversity to the brink of extinction. Mick Clout, a Conservation Biologist at Auckland University, predicts "... if the current rate of change continues, in five hundred years New Zealand will be unrecognisable." It may not be too late, however. Any rescue plan must include prevention of further exotic introductions, eradication of all non-established pests already here, and continued control of those that are firmly established.

Peter Butchard is in Year 9 at St Bede's College in Christchurch.
Rebecca Lewis is a seventh former at Rotorua Lakes High School who enjoys sport and outdoor activities as well as her academic studies.
Chris Perry is a fourth form pupil at Hastings Boys' High School and was one of those who travelled to Dunedin to sequence the huia DNA. He enjoys highland pipe band drumming and outdoor activities.
Catherine Woulfe is 16 years old and is a pupil at Havelock North High School. She has interests in writing, music and drama, and hopes to make a career out of writing.