Condor Conservation at Microscopic Level

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!

“Ready to go do some science?” was the question enthusiastically posed to interns upon their arrival at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Conservation Research. This set the tone for the rest of the afternoon, as interns got a hands-on introduction to the cutting-edge scientific techniques that are at the forefront of modern conservation efforts.

Interns start the day in the Conservation Education Lab at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Conservation Research, where scientific discovery fuels some of the most relevant wildlife conservation efforts of the day. Today’s focus: California condors.

Maggie Reinbold, a conservation program manager at the Institute for Conservation Research, discusses the “massive captive breeding effort” that took place in 1987 when California condor numbers dropped to less than 25. Now that conservation efforts have brought that number up to around 400, Ms. Reinbold reports that genetics continue to play an important role in condor survival, calling DNA “the most informative molecule on the planet.”

Intern Caroline uses the laboratory skill of micro-pipetting. It is, literally, an exact science; the tool transfers liquid measures of as little as 2 microliters (in other words, 2 millionths of a liter) from test tube to test tube. Here, she prepares California condor DNA for genetic evaluation.

Intern Kerissa employs the technique of polymerase chain reaction with a California condor DNA sample; the process allows researchers to hone in on a specific part of the DNA molecule. Today, interns are targeting a region that will indicate condor gender. The process is instrumental in the condor breeding program.

Ms. Reinbold works with Intern Danni to put the DNA segments from the polymerase chain reaction through a process called gel electrophoresis. The process separates these DNA fragments by size and provides a visual representation of the differences in each condor’s DNA.

Interns watch as each person loads a DNA sample into the gel. This is the session’s very first day in the lab, and the team is being exposed to cutting-edge conservation research techniques.

When put under UV light, the result of gel electrophoresis and the product of the day’s work can be observed; each lane features the DNA of a different condor, and the highlighted bands are DNA segments separated by size. By examining these differences, researchers can determine the gender of a given condor.

Sierra, Photo Team
Week One, Winter 2012