Genomics is a rapidly growing discipline and one of the cutting edges of biological research. It involves the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of all genes within an organism (also known as its genome). Understanding genes and their origins can clarify how living things adapt to changing environments and respond to disease. To determine which genes a certain organism may possess, the genes must be sequenced – a technology that continues to become incrementally less expensive and more accessible.
The Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute (GMGI) opened the world’s first research facility dedicated to marine genomics in Gloucester, Massachusettes late last month. Gloucester is a historically important seaport known for shipbuilding and fishing. As wild fish populations in the Atlantic Ocean have declined, regional fisheries operations have as well. Seated in the center of Cape Ann, the GMGI is close to biotechnology hubs in nearby Cambridge and Boston as well as ongoing fisheries enterprises that have long operated off the northeast coast of Massachusettes. Thus, the GMGI hopes to conduct marine genomics research that not only fulfills local economic needs by supporting fisheries science, but also by making advancements in biotechnology and biomedicine using marine organisms as models.
Using Genomics To Improve Human Health
Broadly, genomics offers many opportunities to learn about health issues such as fertility treatments, detecting and combatting cancer, and treating parasites. Marine organisms, however, are largely undervalued for their ability to contribute to such research.
“Most people don’t know that six Nobel prizes came from research using marine organisms as models,” says Dr. Andrea Bodnar, Scientific Director of the GMGI, “They are important for understanding fundamental biological processes, many of which are important to human health.”
Given that the ocean contains over 1 million plants and animals along with billions upon trillions of microbes, Dr. Bodnar and the GMGI community believe that the ocean’s immense biodiversity could serve as a source of new biomedical discoveries. Sequencing the genomes of these marine organisms (which have evolved over billions of years) could reveal novel genes and products that could be useful for therapeutic purposes. For example, researchers recently discovered that the venom of a certain kind of marine snail contains analgesic properties that could be beneficial for pain management.
Researchers at the GMGI aspire to identify similar properties in other marine creatures and use genomics to sustainably produce them. Because these beneficial molecules generally exist in small quantities within the organism, and destructively harvesting species in large volumes is neither ethical nor tractable, the GMGI team plans to make these products accessible via genomics - sequencing small samples of these organisms will allow GMGI scientists to identify the beneficial chemicals and create “biosynthetic” replicas.
Sustaining Capture Fisheries Via Genomics
With rapid declines in regional fish species, it is becoming ever more important to determine the amount of fish present in wild populations and which ocean habitats they use. Certain genomic technologies, such as “environmental DNA” (eDNA), may be capable of providing this information.
When a plant or animal sloughs off biological materials (such as mucus or skin), they leave their DNA behind in the ambient environment. Because DNA can remain in the water for a few days, DNA can be extracted from water samples to confirm whether or not a certain species is and/or was present. The GMGI hopes to clarify how eDNA information can be translated into measuring the abundance of different species.
Currently, the GMGI is working with researchers at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station to sequence the entire genome of the North Atlantic Cod – an iconic species whose populations have been overfished. By taking genetic samples from multiple populations, the GMGI and their collaborators hope to identify if the genetic differences among these populations make them more or less vulnerable to human impacts and environmental change.
Says Dr. Bodnar, “Genomics is positioned to provide new and current information that can be used to really augment or help managers who are making decisions about the sustainable use of ocean resources.”
Building A Vibrant Genomics Research Community
In addition to operating the world’s first genomics research institute, the GMGI also offers academic and professional development opportunities, including training in molecular and biochemical techniques through a nine-month proficiency program that helps trainees become entry-level laboratory technicians.
By educating budding scientists within Gloucester, creating a scientific workforce, advancing our understanding of the chemicals certain marine organisms produce, and improving fisheries management, the GMGI hopes the feed the knowledge they generate into the local ocean-based economy.
According to Dr. Bodnar, ”part of the GMGI’s mission is to promote economic development in the region. Through genomic technology … [we aim to] capitalize on genomics to repurpose some of the oceans’ natural resources for therapeutic purposes while developing techniques that help regional fisheries.”