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Easter DNA eggs-tractions

19/04/2019 in RZSS

RZSS WildGenes are working on techniques to extract DNA from egg shells

Above: A selection of museum eggs - photo by Gkuriger

Springtime greetings from RZSS! As the buds are appearing on the trees, daffodils blooming and most of you will be hoarding up chocolate eggs for Easter weekend I thought now would be an eggs-cellent time to tell you all about one of the techniques that the WildGenes team has been developing in the lab. If you haven’t guessed yet … it’s all about eggs.

Here at WildGenes we are always on the lookout for innovative new ways to get hold of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA), the genetic material we use to understand and help develop strategies to aid species of conservation concern. When working with endangered species it’s even more important to minimise disturbance to wild populations and captive individuals. If we can obtain DNA without having to catch an individual then we can limit the stress involved, most importantly for the target animal (but also for us!). This is one of the reasons we focus on eggs-tracting DNA from faecal, hair or feathers that are left behind by animals as they move through the environment. Recently we have been eggs-perimenting (too much?!) with trying to extract DNA from eggs.

Chick hatching out of an egg and examples of the DNA

Above: Chick with discarded shell and (top right) DNA from eggs 

Discarded after chicks hatch, and also found in many museum collections, egg shells could be a potential source of DNA. Often for our projects on birds we use discarded feathers but these only have very small amounts of DNA. As part of our grey partridge project, we recently attempted to extract DNA from egg shells. We began by crushing up the egg shell in a tiny pestle and mortar and dissolving all the calcium, a mineral that gives bird eggs such a strong rigid shell but does not contain any DNA. However, cells are potentially encased within the calcium or attached to the outside of the shell while it is being made by the female bird. By targeting these cells we were able to extract the DNA of the bird that laid the egg.

The new techniques developed by RZSS WildGenes could help endangered crocodiles

Above: The new DNA extraction technique could benefit critically endangered reptiles - photo by Atnetplanet

We now plan to take this technique to the eggs-treme and help gain non-invasive DNA samples for future projects on birds and hopefully reptile eggs (never a mention of these at Easter). In particular we hope our work on critically endangered crocodiles can now benefit from our new DNA eggs-tractions (last one I promise). Crocodiles lay their eggs on dry land making hatched nests much easier to find than the huge creatures themselves, which often drift like logs along the river bank. I hope to be able to provide more of an update on this crocodilian work in an upcoming WildGenes blog.  

Until then, enjoy tucking into all your chocolate eggs, bunnies and chicks and don’t forget to spare a thought for the real thing (especially those neglected crocodiles).

Dr Alex


We would like to thank the Leventis foundation for funding the grey partridge project and the People’s postcode lottery for supporting the critical work of the WildGenes lab.

 RZSS WildGenes is supported by the Players of Peoples Postcode Lottery

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