Great Things Come in Microscopic Packages

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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!

tori_week4_picGenetics is one of the driving forces behind biology because it gives a whole new view on life. Scientists are turning to the microscopic world to search for answers in chromosomes, which are bundles of DNA. These bundles of DNA are like blueprints for each cell in an organisms’ body. Interns met with two experts from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research Genetics Division, Heidi Davis, a Research Coordinator, and Asako Navarro, a Senior Research Technician.

Ms. Davis shared one of her most memorable stories about being a geneticist. She had the opportunity to work in Cameroon, Africa, on the bushmeat crisis. Bushmeat is meat from wild animals, including animals that are endangered. Hunting endangered animals is illegal, so Ms. Davis and a team of scientists from San Diego Zoo Global traveled to Cameroon to decipher which meat was legal and which was not using special lab technology. Before the project, it was difficult to distinguish between meat that was from endangered species and meat that was not. By testing cells from the meat, Ms. Davis and her colleagues were able to tell which species the meat came from by looking at the DNA. This process helped local authorities enforce rules against hunting endangered species.

Ms. Navarro has been working on a project with big horn sheep. Currently, she is obtaining hundreds of fecal samples from big horn sheep living near the border between the United States and Mexico. She uses the samples to create DNA profiles of the species. She has been able to tell by looking at an individual’s DNA whether it is from north or south of the border. Making these profiles helps gather more information on the big horn sheep population. In the future, geneticists may create profiles for other species around the world.

It seems like these two geneticists get to work on some amazing projects, but what do geneticists do on a daily basis? It is their responsibility to extract DNA from feathers, hair, shell membranes, blood, and cell tissues from a variety of species for research. One method of extracting DNA is through a polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which involves multiplying specific genes on the DNA. If needed, the DNA is then sent to the Frozen Zoo®, a special area in the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research that holds over ten thousand samples from over one thousand species. The Frozen Zoo® was originally created to study chromosomes. Now, some of the samples are used for different types of research, while other samples are kept for future studies. Since the world of science is always changing, these samples could be extremely helpful to geneticists in the future. As technology advances, the DNA kept in the Frozen Zoo® could be used in new and different ways. Scientists don’t know exactly what they might be able to do with the samples in the future. There is a lot to learn from DNA. The geneticists of tomorrow might learn things that current technology does not allow us to obtain today.

DNA, something smaller than even your eye can see, is allowing geneticists to do things that years ago seemed impossible.  For example, Zoo staff can now easily determine the gender of an organism even when males and females of the species look alike. Working with a variety of animals and learning about biodiversity- down to the DNA- are some of Ms. Davis’ and Ms. Navarro’s favorite parts of being geneticists. The world of biology is changing, and genetics is one of the main forces behind its evolution.

Tori, Careers Team
Week Four, Winter Session 2014