Crustacean genetics and a little perspective
Another day at sea – one of our last for this cruise.
My name is Laura Timm and I am a PhD student at Florida International University. This is my fourth DEEPEND cruise and the data we collect from it will contribute to the last chapter of my dissertation.
I work on crustacean genetics. Specifically, I use the DNA of a few shrimp species to describe diversity and characterize how (or if) it is moving within the Gulf. These two things, diversity and gene flow, provide a lot of insight into the health and resilience of these target species. Most of my work with DEEPEND has focused on three shrimp: Acanthephyra purpurea is a bright red color and produces a bioluminescent spew to scare off predators.
Systellaspis debilis is also red (though younger ones can look orange), but with tiny light-producing organs called photophores polka-dotting its body.
Sergia robusta can be dark red or even purple and has photophores around its mouth and tail.
To me, all three are uniquely beautiful.
My research focuses on questions related to genetic diversity, which is a good metric for species health. Where is the most diversity found? Has this changed since 2011? How is diversity distributed? Is some genetic diversity unique to certain places? Answers to these questions provide unprecedented insight into how the Gulf copes with disturbances.
Now, a little perspective.
We trawl with a MOC10 net. It is very large. Every person on the ship could go stand in the frame of the net. However, when compared to the size of the ocean, it is tiny – it has been described as the equivalent of investigating terrestrial diversity using just a butterfly net. Yet, we still catch thousands of shrimp. Of these thousands of shrimp, a few hundred are targeted (A. purpurea, S. debilis, S. robusta). Of these hundreds, 96 are sequenced (this is due to the sequencing process; I can only sequence 96 at a time). The genomes of these species have not been sequenced, so I target a few thousand base pairs of DNA. A few thousand base pairs out of billions of base pairs. About 100 shrimp out of hundreds, hundreds out of thousands, thousands out of every shrimp in the Gulf. This tiny amount of data (which, in the history of science, is unprecedentedly large) can tell us so much about the animals living in the Gulf and how they came to be there and whether they are likely to survive whatever comes next.