For ten days this summer, I woke up more than 20 nautical miles from land during an expedition to a remote part of the Caribbean Ocean. Each day, I saw nothing but turquoise water and a pale blue sky, not a bird or tree in sight. Trips like this to the open ocean are what I love to do.
As the research bioinformatician for the Global Genome Initiative, I had the pleasure of joining this trip to assist in the collection of two commercially and ecologically important coral reef species: the Caribbean spiny lobster and queen conch.
While many people think of these species as tasty delicacies, both of these creatures play an important role in maintaining the heath of their ecosystem. Yet, they are currently under extreme threat from over fishing.
By understanding the genetic dynamics of these creatures, scientists can better assess their ability to respond to fishing pressures and environmental changes. And while the need for genomic sequencing of these animals is clear, obtaining these samples is no easy task.
You might think a conch found only a few meters away from another would be similar genetically, but that is not always true. Populations can be vastly different genetically even though they are neighbors. The exact opposite can also be true, populations can have the exact same genetic structure and be located in completely different regions of the ocean.
Our work was part of a Smithsonian Institute for Biodiversity Genomics and Global Genome Initiative sponsored project that aims to understand how species adapt to their unique marine environments. Specifically, this study—led by Smithsonian scientist Dr. Stephen Box and Dr. Nathan K. Truelove, along with Stanford University’s Dr. Stephen R. Palumbi—seeks to understand the genomic make-up of the spiny lobster and queen conch to look at the genetic variation across the Caribbean.
Ultimately, the genomic resources developed by this project have the potential to improve the sustainable management of the lobster and queen conch in the Caribbean. Through the generation of DNA databases, we can potentially provide valuable tools for combating illegal and unreported fishing throughout the region. As a result of this study, the information from the DNA databases could open up the possibility of tracing a catch back to where it was originally caught; similar to the way the police might use a forensic database.
After 10 nights of being rocked to sleep by unrelenting 7 foot swells, we emerged in Miami, FL with dozens of tissue samples floating in a tank of liquid nitrogen. This is just one of 10 expeditions to collect these species. These samples will be preserved in perpetuity in the Smithsonian’s Biorepository helping us understand the interconnectivity in the ocean, and protect these two important species.
By Vanessa L. Gonzalez, Research Bioinformatician of the Global Genome Initiative, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History.