We are out on the waters of Puget Sound this month for our annual sediment quality survey. As the boat work winds down each day and we return to the dock, live samples are transported back to the lab where a new frenzy of activity begins! What is that, you ask? Let us tell you about DNA barcoding in the benthic lab!
Wave of the future
DNA barcoding is a taxonomic method that uses part of a specific gene or genes to identify an organism to its species. The emerging science of DNA barcoding may one day change the way taxonomists like us identify animals … or at least make our jobs a little easier. Each species has a unique DNA sequence that can be read in a tiny piece of tissue, kind of like scanning barcodes at the grocery store. DNA barcoding still has limitations for everyday use, but when combined with the traditional methods of identifying critters with books and microscopes, it can be a powerful tool for cataloguing biodiversity, assigning names to unknown specimens, and discovering new species.
A fresh perspective
DNA barcoding requires tissue from fresh animals, so as soon as our field crew collects critters from Puget Sound sediments, we immediately rush them back to the lab to identify, photograph, and collect tissue samples from each one. It’s hard work that often goes late into the night, but our reward is getting to see our Puget Sound benthic critters alive and full of color … and knowing that they will be a part of some cutting-edge genomic research.
Partners in grime
Dr. Gustav Paulay from Friday Harbor Marine Laboratories and Curator of Mollusca at the Florida Museum of Natural History
has joined us to help out with this project, and we are extremely grateful for his expertise. The samples we collect are cataloged and sent to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History for the “Invertebrate Genomics Initiative,” part of the larger Global Genome Initiative
. We collaborate with other marine labs with the goal of sequencing DNA from benthic invertebrates that live along the west coast of North America, from Southern California to Alaska. As the largest sediment monitoring program in Puget Sound, our team gets to represent Washington in this effort by providing plenty of valuable mud-dwelling critters to sequence!
Identifying organisms has grown in importance as scientists monitor the biological effects of both local human impacts as well as global climate change. The DNA barcode information and photographs of the species we collect will be added to a global library as a resource for researchers around the world.
We are excited about the opportunity to contribute to the body of DNA knowledge for our Puget Sound benthic invertebrates, and to collaborate with other scientists to better track regional biodiversity over time!
Eyes Under Puget Sound
Dany is a taxonomist – a scientist who identifies and counts the benthic (sediment-dwelling) organisms in our samples as part of our Marine Sediment Monitoring Program. We are tracking the numbers and types of species we see in order to understand the health of Puget Sound and to detect any changes over time. Can't get enough benthos? See photos from our Eyes Under Puget Sound collection on Flickr.