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Natalia A. S. Przelomska, Ph.D.

Peter Buck Research Fellow
B.S. (Hons) Royal Holloway, University of London; M.S. Imperial College London; Ph.D. University of Cambridge

Natalia Przelomska is a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of anthropology at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History and at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Genomics. Natalia is a molecular biologist specializing in the evolutionary histories of plant and animal populations in an anthropological context.

Przelomska’s research at the Smithsonian Institute primarily concerns ‘ahu’ula—feathered capes and cloaks, most of which were manufactured on the Hawaiian islands 150 to 300 years ago. These cloaks were adorned with vibrantly colored red, yellow, black and occasionally green feathers from forest bird families—Hawaiian honeycreepers (Drepanidinae) and Hawaiian honeyeaters (Mohoidae). Many species from these families are now endangered or extinct, including all Mohoid species.

Using feathers that have come loose from the capes, Przelomska is applying a DNA capture method and high-throughput sequencing with the aim of characterizing the genomic diversity of these bird species over time and assessing the population structure of extinct species. This theoretical knowledge will feed into setting conservation priorities for avian species, for which rates of extinction are particularly high on oceanic islands. From the anthropological perspective, this research will help retrieve valuable cultural information regarding ‘ahu’ula, for which historical records are lacking. 

It was during her honors project in the Barnes lab at Royal Holloway that Przelomska discovered her research niche of evolutionary and conservation archaeogenomics. For this project, she extracted DNA from Pleistocene-aged horse bones to study FGF5, a gene known to control hair-length variation in mammals. The hypothesis was that mutations in FGF5 could imply a woolly phenotype for ancient horses (analogous to the evolution of elephants from woolly mammoths). Przelomska later became involved in research on Seychelles black parrots (Coracopsis nigra barklyi), from the perspective of conservation genetics and evolutionary distinctiveness. She has a few months of fieldwork experience in the Seychelles islands, which included black parrot monitoring, coco-de-mer (Lodoicea maldavica) pollination and invasive plant species mapping.
Przelomska maintains a keen interest in flowering plants and their coevolution with humans, as they are being fostered toward becoming economically important species. During her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge (co-sponsored by the BBSRC and Unilever), she studied the evolution of flowering time in the domesticated Eurasian crop species foxtail millet (Setaria italica). Flowering time is a trait of complex genetic architecture. Mutations in genes with roles from light perception to setting circadian rhythmicity are involved in the emergence of earlier- and later-flowering phenotypes that are adapted to different environmental conditions. The ability of foxtail millet plants to produce these phenotypes dictated their success in the process of human-assisted migration across Eurasia. Przelomska’s research highlighted that preservation of crops, such as foxtail millet, in the form of landraces is key to our understanding of their adaptation to past environments, which in turn aids in inferring the behavior of crop plants in the future. This is of interest due to increasingly unstable climatic conditions that many agricultural areas are experiencing worldwide. Furthermore, the dearth of diversity in our current food systems (in terms of genomic variation, species richness and nutrient availability) could benefit from the use of a more diverse base of landrace material available for many edible plant species.