Conservation Lab on Cutting Edge of Biotech Trends
December 5, 2004 9:48 PM
Amongst a dizzying array of high tech equipment, vials, tubes and containers, students and faculty at SF State are performing a multitude of scientific projects and studies dealing with what have been called the building blocks of life.
Located in Hensill Hall, the Conservation Genetics Laboratory (CGL) houses facilities that are used for a wide variety of research, particularly concerning deoxyribonucleic acid—more commonly known as DNA.
Students at SF State may be surprised to find out that such a place is located on campus, but the CGL has in fact been around for some time now—the lab was built in 1985, and people working there have produced more than 90 master’s theses, according to CGL director Frank Cipriano.
“I think that rate is accelerating now, because the whole bio-technology explosion is happening. There’s a lot of bio-tech companies in this area, which is good for us because our students have many options when they leave here,” said Cipriano.
About 60 people are currently using the lab, ranging from undergrads to faculty, to graduate students and post-docs, using the latest in technology to further their research.
“The most used techniques are PCR, which is the amplification of DNA, and then sequencing the DNA, so that’s what [we usually do here],” said Cipriano.
One of the areas that has been the subject of numerous masters theses from CGL is termed ‘Phylogenetic Systematics’—which is looking at evolutionary relationships of plants and animals by using molecular information, and giving it a sort of deconstructed family tree, by looking at genetic relationships. Another field of study, with a similar approach is called ‘Phylogeography,’ which according to Cipriano is where scientists look at the relationships among different geographic areas related to genetic diversity of organisms in those areas—thereby seeing how populations of the species vary in their geographic range.
“Another thing that’s quite similar to that and oftentimes involves analysis of the same data sets, is ‘Genetic Diversity Assessment,’ and comparisons of genetic traditions between different areas. That kind of study is where the name Conservation Genetics Laboratory comes from, because that’s usually the field of study [done in the lab].”
Conservation Genetics is looking at the genetic diversity of different populations—members of the same species in different areas—and trying to determine if they are really different, and should be managed separately.
“One of the newest developments in Conservation Biology in general is the idea that we’re not just saving species, we need to be concerned about conserving their genetic diversity within the species,” said Cipriano.
Cipriano said that this idea has come from the realization that plants, animals, or anything else that lives in a particular region, has probably adapted over time, and this adaptation makes them more suited to live in that area—so if that particular population is wiped out due to any number of factors, including human interference—it may be impossible to ever bring them back.
The laboratory itself consists of a couple of different rooms, each serving specific purposes, such as extracting DNA, amplifying it, sequencing it, and then evaluating the results.
Craig Reading is a graduate student who while working on his own thesis, involving the population genetics of a species of salamanders, is also a full time lab technician. Currently he is working on material for a faculty member studying a group of plants called arctostaphylos, commonly known as Manzanitas, which are found throughout California.
“The relationships within the species itself are not widely known, so we’re trying to work out the molecular side of it to try to figure out what’s really going on, and how they came to be—it’s thought that they are of what we call hybrid orgin,” said Reading.
Juniper Scribner is a graduate student and lab assistant working on her master’s degree project—a population genetics study of harbor seals of the California region.
“I’m looking at population level differences…there might be little groups [where] there isn’t as much gene flow, they might just be breeding with each other, so I’m looking to see if that is true, or not true, or if they are part of one big population that is intermixing, interbreeding, going up and down the coast.”
“Even if I find that the population is just one big interbreeding population, that’s important information for the people who are making conservation management laws for harbor seals.”
“It also kind of gives a baseline—in Europe they had a big die-off of harbor seals, a disease outbreak broke through the population and killed thousands and thousands of seals. So it’s kind of good to know what [the] genetic variability of this population [is]. How far are the genes flowing? If there is a disease outbreak, is it going to wipe the whole population out? Is it going to stay in one region? It will give us information like that as well.”
Cipriano is also involved with research concerning marine mammals—last year he was part of a team that performed a DNA analysis on dog food bought in Japanese supermarkets—and found that it contained the DNA of whales and dolphins, proving that ships from Japan were illegally whaling in Antarctica and the North Pacific.
Cipriano says he sees a vast number of future opportunities for students who currently work at the CGL.
“There are many options for somebody coming out with these kinds of skills, they can work in the [bio-tech] industry, they can work in a government research lab, or they can continue their education at the PhD level.”
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