One genome at a time
George Amato’s conservation mission
Justine E. Hausheer • December 16, 2012
When George Amato was 10 years old, he watched a television program about Louis Leakey excavating hominid fossils in Africa’s Olduvai Gorge. Captivated by both the fossils and the surrounding Serengeti, George wrote a letter to Leakey telling him that he hoped to work with him in Africa one day. Addressed simply to “Louis Leakey / Nairobi, Kenya”, the letter also included some drawings of how George imagined the African plants and animals. Three months later, Leakey wrote back.
That letter now hangs above George Amato’s desk at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he is the director of the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics and the Center for Conservation Genetics. Decades after receiving Leakey’s typewritten reply, Amato is now a leader in his own field, using genetic analysis to help endangered species around the globe.
Recently Amato and colleagues compared DNA from mummified Nile crocodiles to that of living ones, discovering that the Nile crocodile is actually two different species. Amato has also used genetic analysis to inform a breeding program for rhinos in Africa’s Ngorongoro Crater, and to help identify and monitor African bushmeat.
Amato was born in 1956 in Miami, Florida, where his father was attending the University of Miami after returning from Korea. The son of Italian immigrants, Amato’s father was the first person in his family to attend college. “I think he had a sense that there was a big world out there,” Amato says. “I really credit him with changing our lives.” The family then moved to Connecticut, where Amato spent his childhood catching creatures in the tidal pools and swamps off of the Long Island Sound.
Amato first encountered evolutionary biology while attending the University of Connecticut. After starting graduate school in Miami, he took a job as a research assistant in Jeff Powell’s evolutionary biology lab at Yale, where he would later complete his graduate work.
In Powell’s lab Amato began thinking about genetics and conservation, which at the time were separate disciplines. “Ecologists and geneticists weren’t talking to each other,” says Powell. Powell says that cross-disciplinary thinkers like Amato, coupled with advances in genetic technology, made the emergence of conservation genetics possible. “It was a very new idea,” Amato says. “I had to spend a lot of time persuading people that it was important.”
Conservation genetics applies genetic techniques, often developed for human health, to current conservation efforts for endangered and threatened species. Genetic problems can occur when a population of animals or plants dwindles. Groups of animals can become isolated, which can lead to inbreeding and an unhealthy gene pool. By sequencing an endangered species’ genes, scientists can monitor its genetic health both in captivity and in the wild, and devise breeding strategies to bolster genetic diversity.
Genetic analysis can even help fight the illegal wildlife trade. The Sackler Institute’s DNA Barcoding Initiative uses short sections of DNA to identify suspicious animal products like fur, meat or leather goods. Recently Amato and colleagues applied bar-coding genetics to tuna sushi from restaurants in New York City, discovering that some sushi was actually from an endangered species of tuna.
Since the emergence of conservation genetics, Amato has worked on dozens of species across the globe. One of his most memorable research projects involved the endangered St. Vincent parrot. The Caribbean island of St. Vincent, where the 16-inch-long multicolored parrots are found, gained its independence in 1979. Interested in conserving the native species, the island’s government began a program to protect the parrots, whose rarity made them a lucrative commodity in the illegal pet trade. The new government contacted Amato to help set up a captive breeding program as a hedge against extinction.
“One of the great things about working all over the world is that you see people who have a whole lot of other things to worry about than wildlife,” Amato says, “and yet they care about wildlife as much as anyone in the developed world.”
Working with the local scientists, Amato devised a test that could extract DNA from molted parrot feathers. He also developed a way to genotype each bird, or genetically identify, helping conservationists establish breeding procedures to promote genetic health. “No one had ever done this for a big population of animals,” Amato says. “All of a sudden, this group of parrots on St. Vincent’s became the most detailed genotyped group of organisms.”
Amato’s interest in parrots began long before his research in the Caribbean. Intrigued by Miami’s feral parrots during graduate school, he started reading about them. Then Amato got a pet macaw named Rio around the time his daughter Mary was born. “She’s a wonderful bird,” he says. “When I do sit ups she comes down and tries to feed me regurgitated seeds, and … she hates my children because she has always been jealous of them.”
Now the director of the Center for Comparative Genomics, Amato balances his time between research and administration. Robert DeSalle, Amato’s colleague and the curator of invertebrate zoology at the museum, emphasizes that Amato’s success lies not only in his talent as a scientist but in his desire to put science to best use for the species that need it.
When DeSalle was first setting up his lab, a turtle specialist offered them $60,000 for some conservation genetics research. DeSalle was pleased, but Amato turned the money away because the species would benefit more from putting the money to another use, rather than genetic analysis.
“I was sitting there thinking ‘God George, you just threw $60,000 out the window,’” he says, “but he was absolutely right in retrospect.”
Stretched across Amato’s office wall is a worn world map, bristling with red and green colored push-pins. Africa is nearly covered, and the other continents are thoroughly dotted with little plastic spires. The pins mark every country where Amato has traveled or done research – by his estimate a total of over 65 countries.
His field research has both helped endangered species and resulted in memorable stories. Amato once spent five days alone in the mangrove flats of Malaysian Borneo, trapped by bad weather and with few provisions. He also had his Land Rover break down next to a pride of lions, and the only way to get the car rolling was to jump out and push.
Despite his extensive travels, Amato is adamant about aiding and appreciating wildlife closer to home. When not spending time with his family, Amato is either running or birdwatching. “It’s a fantastic world out there,” he says, “but you don’t have to go to the most remote places in the world to have really incredible wildlife experiences.”