Conserve and protect
17 May 2010
The work Abigail Fusaro is doing today will contribute to the conservation and protection of species for years to come.
Dr Fusaro, staff scientist with the Ocean Genome Legacy in Massachusetts, United States, is working on the Barcode of Life Database, which makes available genetic identification of marine species to scientists around the world. This information can assist researchers to understand and preserve coral reef systems.
"We have a state of threatened ocean health, through climate change, unsustainable fishing practices, pollution and other pressures exerted on the ecosystem. Many of the species we find today may become extinct over the lifetime of current researchers, or over several lifetimes. By archiving material, we can still access what a particular animal or plant was like and what it was doing, by deciphering its genetic code," Dr Fusaro said.
Dr Fusaro's work on the CReefs project ensures scientists who don't have the opportunity to participate in field research due to a lack of funding, time or resources, can still gain access to the materials they need to conduct important research into marine life.
According to Dr Fusaro, "The database is a service to the scientific community, and it helps us to understand biodiversity in the world's oceans. It's important to conserve species that are out there right now."
This is her third CReefs field trip; she participated in the Ningaloo and Heron Island expeditions last year. She said scientists are still discovering new life at Ningaloo, especially smaller fauna, such as creatures that live in the sand and coral rubble. Scientists are also re-sampling species found on previous trips, and Dr Fusaro said this allows her to understand the genetic variation among individuals within a species.
Dr Fusaro works with researchers on the CReefs expedition to take tissue samples of much of what is collected. Each of these samples will be archived and barcoded: researchers break open the cells and extract the DNA. Part of this DNA is stored for perpetuity; part of it is made available for researchers to request for their own research projects. A small fraction is sequenced for DNA barcoding and the sequences are made available through the public online Barcode of Life Database.
Barcoding looks at nucleotide sequence of about 650 letters in the chain of DNA. Dr Fusaro's work looks specifically for a sub-unit of the mitochondrial DNA called cytochrome oxidase 1 (COI). For many marine organisms, COI is found in a predictable spot and is unique to the species – essentially a quick molecular ID or fingerprint.
For some other groups of organisms such as sponges and some corals, the COI sequence isn't unique between species. Researchers of these groups are using different regions of the DNA chain, even including spaces between genes such as the internal transcribed spacer 1 and 2 (ITS1 and ITS2), to differentiate one species from another.
The barcoding is time-intensive: one field trip can yield 800-1200 samples in three weeks, but for Dr Fusaro's team at the Ocean Genome Legacy, which can process 90 samples in a week, it may take from three months to a year for all of the samples to be analysed. Sample throughput is something that the Ocean Genome Legacy is working to improve; soon, this team should be able to process the same number of samples currently handled over the course of a week in just a few hours.
Eventually, scientists will be able to barcode every sample they collect, giving the international scientific community a much better understanding of marine biodiversity.
"Our role is to provide the information so that researchers can work on solutions to conserve and protect coral reefs and other marine ecosystems," she said.