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!
Zoo InternQuest visited the Genetics Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, and even had a chat with the well-known Dr. Oliver Ryder, an important figure in the animal conservation community.
My fellow intern Kalee is looking through a microscope. At the lab, we all had the opportunity to view fibroblast cells of Gymnogyps californianus, better known as the California condor. Cells of the California condor are stored at the Frozen Zoo®, where there are already at least 9,000 samples being preserved.
Pictured here are the incubators that contain fibroblast tissue cell cultures. Each species must have their cells kept at a specific temperature. This is important to ensure the integrity of the sample and prevent the deterioration of the DNA within.
At the lab, we were shown examples of specimens that can be used for DNA extraction. At first, I thought that it would only be blood or hair follicles, but I learned that extractions can come from a variety of items, like an eggshell membrane or even feces.
Meet Heidi Davis. She is a Research Coordinator for the Genetics Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Ms. Davis practices molecular genetics and is an expert in paternity testing. If the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park ever need to know who fathered a newborn baby, she’s the one to call. She even does species identification by analyzing samples, such as the feces or hair, of unknown animals.
Asako Navarro, a Research Technician and also working in the Genetics Division, prepared an activity for us to sex California condors in the lab. These amazing birds are sexually monomorphic (meaning both genders look exactly the same). The only efficient way to determine a bird’s gender is by analyzing its DNA.
One of the genetic techniques used in sexing is known as PCR, which stands for polymerase chain reaction. PCR is used to clone a specific gene over and over again until there are millions of copies. With these copies, geneticists can use the DNA in a variety of ways, for sequencing, microsatellite analysis, or paternity determination.
The Frozen Zoo® stores animal DNA samples, mostly from mammals. The staff at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research are working to add more species to the mix, like birds and reptiles. The Frozen Zoo® is an important conservation component because it provides a unique resource for future generations of science, especially as they pertain to endangered or extinct species.
Dr. Oliver Ryder, Director of the Genetics Division, shared a few examples of how genetic rescues are conducted. For example, when cougars in Florida were showing signs of genetic mutations, such as kinked tails and infertile males, scientists decided to bring cougars from Texas and allow them to breed with the Florida population. Eventually, a more genetically diverse population was created.
Dr. Ryder also discussed a popular topic: bringing back the woolly mammoth. He said that scientists have pondered bringing back this species, along with others like the Siberian tiger. He explained, however, that extinction happens for a reason, and one concern would be that these species no longer have a role in the ecosystem and could also potentially bring back unknown diseases.
Samantha, Photography Team
Week Four, Winter Session 2014