Building Blocks of the Future

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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 on the Zoo’s website!

marcel_W3_picOur whole lives are affected by genetics. Genes are what allow us to be who we are; without a different set of DNA and chromosomes there would be no diversity of life. This is why the study of genetics is vitally important, not just for us, but for other animal species as well. This week we had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being able to talk to multiple genetic specialists at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. While we learned about different processes, methods, and procedures of gene science, we also learned about why they are important and how these practices positively benefit both animals and us.

Steven Thomas of the Genetics Division at the Institute taught us about molecular genetics. This ranged from microsatellite analysis to different methods of obtaining DNA. One fascinating question that Mr. Thomas asked us was, “How do we obtain these samples of DNA?” Turns out, there are many different ways to obtain samples of DNA to work with, such as blood, tissue, feathers, hair, skin, and even from eggshell membrane. One of the important aspects of this gathered DNA is it can be used to see which animals are related and study genetic diversity and variation within a population.

Genetic variation within a population is critically important to animals just as it is for people. If animals with similar genetic material (animals that are closely related) produce offspring, then their offspring will have a higher chance of inheriting harmful DNA mutations or traits. If an animal inherits these harmful mutations, they can develop weaknesses to certain aspects of their environment and pass these weaknesses on to their own offspring. Over time, it is possible that an entire population may have developed a weakness to a certain condition, and if this condition were to come about, it could have large impacts on the population. It is important to keep a careful watch on animal DNA so we can keep them as healthy and reproductively robust as possible.  If we can keep their populations as genetically diverse as possible, it helps us in the future as our conservation efforts will have one less challenge to overcome.

An important aspect of genetics is bringing back species from the brink of extinction. With animals such as the California condor and the giant panda, the study of genetics has played a huge role in their recovery success, instead of leading to extinction. The story of the California condor starts in 1982 with only 22 condors left on the planet. Condors are critically important to people. They help maintain a clean environment by eating carrion. After realizing the dramatically low numbers, the San Diego Zoo got involved and started a breeding program. Condors are monitored very closely and their genetic diversity is carefully observed. In 1992 the first zoo-bred condors were released back into their natural habitat and with close monitoring and extensive captive breeding efforts, by 2011 their total estimated populations reached 400, with approximately half of those still in managed care facilities. With success stories like this, we know that these efforts are worth the work and have a positive impact on the ecosystem, in turn helping us as well as the other animals that call those ecosystems home.

Genetics plays a huge role in everyday life. The study of genetics can have positive influences on species and ecosystems, which in turn impact us. With the study of genetics, many more animals have better chances in the wild as well as in breeding programs. The future of genetics and animal research is up to us to continue to improve upon. After all, who could imagine a world without rhinos and giant pandas if they were to go extinct? Genetic studies may provide us with a second chance. In the words of Dr. Ryder “The future will thank us for what we save.”

Marcel, Real World Team
Week Three, Winter Session 2013