Molecular Ecology Laboratory in Alaska

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The Molecular Ecology Laboratory at the USGS Alaska Science Center provides genetic capabilities for the wide range of science needs of the Department of the Interior nationally as well as on trust species and resources in Alaska. 

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Molecular ecology is the study of the earth and its ecosystems through genetic methods.  The main objectives of the USGS Alaska Science Center molecular ecology research program are to:

  • Identify and fill gaps in our knowledge about species and population diagnosis, biodiversity, and health of wildlife and their habitats to inform decision making by management agencies
  • Provide state-of-the-art molecular science applications and protocols for USGS, Department of Interior, and other partners

Research Topics

Population Genetic Structure

Understanding the genetic structure of a species or of populations is often the first step in informing decision-making and for developing subsequent research or management priorities.  For example, across the breeding range of a animal, how many distinct populations exist and are they different enough to be managed separately from the entire population?  How much dispersal and gene flow is there between populations?  The USGS uses genetic variation to answer these and other questions about the relationships among populations and species.

Disease and Immunology

Wildlife and plant species are common reservoirs for a variety of diseases. Ecosystems can also be susceptible to disease and some pathogens can be transmitted to humans. On-going genetic and genomic research on disease and wildlife susceptibility at the USGS Alaska Science Center can improve our understanding of types of disease strains present, possible origins of the disease agents, and susceptibility of wildlife and plant species to disease. 

Biodiversity and Adaptation

In Alaska, the climate is changing at an unprecedented rate and is predicted to continue in upcoming decades. Plants and animals have responded to increased global temperature by shifting their timing of growth and reproduction.  However, not all species within Arctic communities respond in the same manner.  Genomics approaches are increasingly being used to link genetic variation (biodiversity within a species) to adaptively important traits in wildlife and plant species. The USGS is conducting research on the evolutionary response and adaptation of species to changing climate conditions, particularly in the Arctic. 

Methods Development

Many molecular methods are not simply “off the shelf” and ready to use for wildlife and plant species.  The USGS invests significant research into developing molecular methods for use in ecosystems research, particularly in the development of novel markers that allow quantification of genetic variation in wild species.  Once these methods are published, other researchers can then use these markers in similar and even very distantly related species.  Similarly, the USGS develops novel analytical methods to demonstrate how genetic information can be used for a wide variety of questions in the ecosystems sciences.

Environmental DNA (eDNA)

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is DNA recovered from any number of types of environmental samples, including water, soil, sediment, and scat.  In Alaska, logistical obstacles can render the use of traditional techniques of collecting biodiversity data cost-prohibitive and use of eDNA can be a powerful alternative approach.  We typically leverage a metabarcoding (Next-Generation Sequencing of amplicons) approach to our eDNA studies, which have allowed us to maximize field sampling efficiencies while answering a broad suite of research questions, including detection of pathogens and invasive species, delineation of community structure, and analysis of diets.

Rob Wilson pipetting PCR products into a gel

Rob Wilson pipetting PCR products into an acrylamide gel; after electrophoresis he'll be able to visualize fragment size differences within and among individuals. (Credit: Megan Gravely, USGS. Public domain.)