Gene-y in a Test Tube

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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 ability 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!

It’s nearly impossible to predict the trajectory of science because it is always changing. It used to be that only the genetics division worked with genes, but now almost every department has some role with genes. The San Diego Zoo Global’s Institute for Conservation Research has been a leader in advancing the world of genetics with the help of Director Dr. Oliver Ryder, and dedicated researchers like Heidi Davis and Anna Mitelberg. By figuring out what is possible, geneticists can determine what they want animal life to look like on Earth, being the puppeteers behind the survival of a species.

Molecular genetics can perform a multitude of tests including paternity, genetic identity, or genetic sexing with a sample of DNA from an animal. Noninvasive samples are preferred such as tissue received from a veterinary exam or necropsy, a feather, hair, saliva, or feces. The DNA is then extracted and amplified to make more copies which are either used or saved in various fridges throughout the lab. The fridges contain collectively 4,000 samples genetic material. These samples are stored for future use or to send out to other zoos and organizations for their own tests. Heidi Davis, Research Coordinator, is constantly working on different projects since she began 14 years ago at the Institute. Currently, she is working on a paternity analysis of the bonobos and chimpanzees throughout the nation that were the first generation of zoo animals brought from the wild to see if they are related. Ms. Davis had an interesting entrance into the field of molecular genetics. She entered college at UCSD as a history major, but noticed that she had an affinity for science and math. After taking a general biology class with a great professor she changed her major to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, which allowed her to combine her love of conservation with biology.

One of the most well-known conservation success stories involving a species on the brink of extinction is that of the California condors. With only 22 condors left, and on the brink of extinction, a breeding system was implemented in the managed care of the San Diego Zoo which revived the population. Anna Mitelberg, Research Lab Technician, monitors the sex of California condor eggs, something that has been done since the 1980s. The species is sexually monomorphic, meaning both genders are identical in appearance, so DNA is extracted from the membrane of the eggshell to genetically sex the birds. The amplification of a specific gene, CHD, presents the sexual determination of the developing embryo and allows the geneticists to keep track of the California condor population. She is also developing a screening process to test for chondrodystrophy, a genetic disease commonly found in California condors.

When Dr. Oliver Ryder graduated from UC Riverside with a B.S. in biology and had received a Ph.D. in biology from UC San Diego about 40 years ago, he sought to do conservation genetics with endangered species. Since then, Dr. Ryder has had many years of experience and has contributed to some of the greatest conservation efforts for endangered species. This includes the California condor rehabilitation, black-footed ferret gene rescue, the Frozen Zoo, and Genome 10K to just name a few. Today, with the sharp decline of Northern white rhinos, geneticists are working rapidly to find a method for saving this small remaining population of five. A project underway is seeking to sequence the genomes of wild Southern white rhinos for differences between the two in hopes of making a hybrid, with the Southerns receiving and carrying the embryo. Dr. Ryder emphasized how imperative it is for the new generations that would be produced to grow up with some adults of their own species, and not be the sole survivors, because of the behavioral and ecological effects. He advises anyone interested in this field to attain a Ph.D., be good at bioinformatics, and have tenacity for problem solving. Overall if you follow your passion and learn as much as possible, in that pursuit you will become an expert.

The progress of the genetics department is reliant on people who truly understand these matters to communicate with one another and foster authentic discussions for the future conservation of species. Experience is a key factor for getting a job, especially at such a prominent organization like the San Diego Zoo. If you have the opportunity, talk to people who work in the field to gain as much information as possible. At the core of this department is pure excitement towards rescuing species from extinction. As the genetics department approaches this brave new world of science, a lot of headway is being made but there are still things to be discovered and species to save.

Claudia, Career Team
Week Six, Winter Session