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Killer Whale of a Project

Researchers are embarking on a project to sequence Pacific Northwest orcas in hopes of finding a way to prevent them from becoming extinct, the Associated Press reports.

Orcas, which are considered to be endangered by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and have been grappling with pollution, boat noise, and a decline in their Chinook salmon food source. Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, the Nature Conservancy, and BGI hope that by sequencing the genomes of more than 100 southern resident killer whale, they'll be able to tease out whether inbreeding or immune system variations have kept the killer whale population from coming back.

"This will help us fill in some really critical gaps in our understanding about why the population is not recovering," Mike Ford, from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said during a news conference in BGI's Seattle office, according to the AP. "As we fill in those gaps that will lead us to potentially better solutions."

The researchers will be using skin and other samples obtained from living and dead orcas during the last two decades, it adds, noting that initial results are expected next year.