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!
Inside the Beckman Center for Conservation Research, you’ll find the Genetics Division, where staff members work to apply scientific technology for the conservation of animals and for the greater understanding of biology and evolution of species. Within the Genetic Division, cells, DNA, tissues, and blood are banked in the Frozen Zoo® for preservation, in the hopes of one day utilizing the specimens to contribute to genetic variation within a species’ population or even for comparison of different DNA samples to determine possible inherited abnormalities through karyotyping. We had the privilege of getting an inside look at how some of these processes are applied to conservation research.
Steven Thomas, Senior Research Technician, who works in the Molecular Genetics part of the division, explains the process of PCR (polymerase chain reaction) in which DNA is amplified for the purpose of gene mapping and species identification. This can be useful when applied to conservation because by mapping the genes of a species, scientists can better pinpoint the evolution of a species and its branching patterns.
Mr. Thomas describes how the genetic analyzer helps to finalize products of PCR. The DNA fragments obtained from PCR are run through the genetic analyzer and are dyed with fluorescent colors, a process similar to gel electrophoresis, to determine the hereditary material of an animal or the gender. This is useful when Mr. Thomas assists in determining the best mating pair for California condors to produce the most viable offspring.
Cameron, a fellow intern, is given the opportunity to determine the “sire” and “dam” of a California condor offspring. He uses the information acquired from PCR and the genetic analyzer that was organized through the computer. By observing the similarities of the genes of the offspring and the potential parents, parentage can be assigned.
In the Cytogenetics Lab, Marcel, another fellow intern, is observing a tissue culture under the microscope. Tissue samples obtained for research and preservation are collected opportunistically and are grown in a culture in preparation to be banked in the Frozen Zoo®.
The cells depicted above were obtained from epithelial tissue. The staff working in the Cytogenetics Lab explained that it was difficult to remove the cells grown in the flask because of their adhesive tendency to stick onto the walls. This poses a problem for preservation because the cells cannot be transferred and thus the staffs preferably do not grow epithelial tissues.
Marlys Houck, a researcher in the genetics division who manages the Cytogenetics Lab, shows us a karyotype of a baby gorilla. It was determined that the gorilla was missing portions of chromosome three. In this instance, the Frozen Zoo® proved to be vital; researchers were able to use the specimens in the Frozen Zoo® to determine whether or not the chromosomal abnormality was inherited.
Dr. Oliver Ryder, the Director of the genetics department, explained the possibility of saving endangered species and even potentially bringing back extinct species. By utilizing fossils and other genetic materials of species, scientists can sequence all of an organism’s DNA. Through this process of DNA sequencing, the species’ genetic information is better understood.
Charlene, Photo Team
Week Three, Winter Session 2013