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Over The Horizon

Life in the Old Moa Yet

Two grams of moa bone dust and Dr Yasuyuki Shirota, or Ankoh as he prefers to be called, are causing a buzz of excitement in the University of Otago Department of Biochemistry. Ankoh is planning to extract DNA from the femur of a Dinornis giganteus, or giant moa, take it back to Japan, replicate the DNA many times over and introduce certain genes into chicken embryos.

"I want to find the genes that control the colour, or behaviours, or size," Ankoh says. "If we can introduce that into a chick we can see what the moa's colour really was, or maybe something of how it behaved."

He says the results are not guaranteed. Colleagues performing a similar experiment introduced genes from one species into 7,000 chick embryos and only found the gene reproduced in ten hatched chicks.

Ankoh, whose publications include an article called "Can We Revive Extinct Species?" says he has been interested in moa for the last 20 years. This experiment is an extension of his research into evolution and the genetic relation between ancient species and those of today.

He then read some scientific papers regarding moa DNA written by Dr Alan Cooper. This prompted him to make contact with scholars in New Zealand who would be able to help him with his experiment, including Otago University's Molecular Biology Unit and Professor Diana Hill.

Hill leads a group of scientists who have experience in extracting DNA from the bones of ancient human beings uncovered in Thailand by teams led by Otago anthropologist Professor Charles Higham. The aim of this was to discover the familial relationship of people buried in close proximity and required skills and equipment such as that needed for the experiment Ankoh has in mind. After his return to Japan, Ankoh plans to continue the work in collaboration with the Molecular Biology Unit.