Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Whale shark project lets students dive into genetic research

By Carol Clark

Biology undergraduates at Emory are studying genetics in a big way: They are the first to take a crack at researching the raw data from the sequence of the genome of the whale shark, the world’s largest fish.

“This project is amazing because we’re actually getting to do scientific work and further research,” says Mansi Maini, a sophomore majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology.

The project to sequence the whale shark genome is a collaboration between Tim Read, a professor of infectious diseases at Emory School of Medicine, and Alistair Dove, director of research and conservation at the Georgia Aquarium.

Whale sharks can grow up to about 40 feet long. They have huge mouths, and yet they are filter feeders that mainly eat tiny organisms like plankton. Like all sharks, they are ancient animals, among the earliest of jawed vertebrates.

"We have created a unique educational experience in the process of researching the whale shark," says Tim Read, shown at the Georgia Aquarium. Photo by Jack Kearse.

“When we’re looking into the whale shark genome we’re doing a sort of molecular archeological dig,” Read says. “We can see the history of the whale shark in its tissue.”

The researchers are particularly interested in exploring the immune system of the whale shark.

“Better understanding the whale shark genes involved in the adaptive immune system could help us better understand how the immune system works across species, throughout evolution,” explains Megan Cole, Emory's director of undergraduate biology laboratories. “That could help inform how to improve the immune system in humans to work on auto-immune diseases and to improve fighting off infections.”

Cole incorporated research of the whale shark genome into Emory’s undergraduate biology education. The idea is to move away from so-called “cookbook” labs, that simply require students to memorize step-by-step procedures, and get them involved in doing actual science.

The whale shark project offers students the chance, and the challenge, of devising hypotheses and experiments to investigate individual proteins and genes. The students create Wiki pages to post their findings and make newly accumulated knowledge of the whale shark publicly available for others to build on. You can visit the Wiki pages created by Mansi Maini’s student lab group here, here and here.

The work being done by the students is painstaking, but potentially valuable. “Going back to the archeological metaphor, the more people at the dig, the more chance you’ll find that dinosaur bone,” Read says. “So that’s what we’re doing right now, sifting through a vast trove of evidence.”

The math of shark skin

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