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Researchers collecting DNA from the ocean’s depths

Doctoral student Chris Marks braving the ocean in February to collect samples for the Marine Science Center in Nahant.
Doctoral student Chris Marks braving the ocean in February to collect samples for the Marine Science Center in Nahant.Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe

Steven Vollmer studies coral. One of the species on his radar is staghorn coral, which has long branches resembling male deer antlers. Found mostly off the Florida Keys and in the Caribbean, the coral is on the endangered species list because of white band disease, a condition involving a deadly ring of peeling that starts at its base.

Vollmer said researchers hope to identify the genetic variance that makes some species resistant and others susceptible, and use the knowledge to bring coral back in greater numbers.

That’s the kind of opportunity that has had researchers buzzing since the Ocean Genome Legacy project moved into Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center in Nahant over the winter.


The legacy project has the lofty goal of collecting the genomes — the DNA blueprint — of all creatures in the sea, which could someday be used to cure human diseases, protect the environment, and improve the sustainability of global food and energy supplies.

“Life started in the ocean,” said Dan Distel, director of the legacy project. “It’s been only in about the last 15 percent of the history of life that things crawled up on the land. That means almost all of the important evolutionary pathways — our biochemistry, our physiology — evolved in the ocean. The fact that our blood is salty, that’s a remnant of the fact that our ancestors came from the ocean. So all that diversity of life that’s in the ocean is a massive library of information that we can use to understand how things live today, and how land organisms live.

“That’s why scientists can look at model organisms like sea urchins and zebra fish and can learn something about humans.”

Imagine the possibilities for a library containing the DNA of the rarest creatures in the ocean, which makes up approximately 70 percent of the world’s surface and has a wide range of habitats, some miles under the surface. That’s what Donald Comb, founder of New England Biolabs in Ipswich, had in mind when he began the Ocean Genome Legacy project in 2001.


The work has continued since the initiative moved to the Northeastern center in January.

Since 2003, the Human Genome Project has provided grants to studies aimed at certain health problems, such as the risk of cancer or cardiovascular disease, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute, based in Bethesda, Md. In Boston, researchers at the Mother Infant Research Institute at Tufts Medical Center recently published a study on how genetic testing of fetuses can help identify chromosomal abnormalities such as Down syndrome.

“If you want to know about’’ common genome models, such as for mice or humans, “everything’s been done for you,” said Vollmer, a Northeastern professor. “If you’re a guy like me who wants to know something about coral in general or a specific coral, you develop it on your own. The repository makes it so that if I sequence the genome of coral, I can deposit the DNA in the repository, and my colleagues can go back to that and interrogate the DNA.”

The ocean genome project began collecting samples in earnest around 2006, and has catalogued a total of 20,000 tissue samples and an equal number of DNA samples from approximately 4,000 species, said Distel. With about 250,000 named species in the ocean, and perhaps many more that are still unknown, researchers have just tapped the surface, he said.


“In molecular biology, usually the advances filter slowly to the other sciences,” said Distel, as he sifted through samples of rare shellfish and other species that have been donated from scientific projects around the world. “But we’re starting to adopt molecular methods really strongly, and everyone realizes that that’s the future.

“We know how they will be used today, but don’t know how they will be used in 20 years,” he added. “And that’s really part of our goal. Not just to think about next year, but also think of 20 years and 50 years and 100 years, when these samples continue to increase in value.”

A multimillion-dollar gift from New England Biolabs and other private donors is allowing the project to thrive at the Northeastern facility in Nahant. The university has developed connections with research centers in China, Hong Kong, and Iraq, and has announced its intent to expand its studies in marine science, according to Murray Gibson, dean of Northeastern’s College of Science.

Professor Geoffrey Trussell, director of the Marine Science Center, said that because the focus of so many researchers there is coastal ecology, the legacy project’s DNA samples will be used in ways that they wouldn’t be otherwise.

“There’s greater connectivity and a more creative environment in an academic sense, in terms of how the collection can benefit our understanding and knowledge of marine species,” Trussell said.


Besides the core value of providing advances in sustainability and ecology conservation, Gibson said, the university has been trying to find more opportunities for its co-op students abroad. Collecting species for the legacy project could provide international research experiences for them.

“Having a home in a university makes incredible sense, because obviously we’re used to the concept of keeping a collection and supporting it and making it available to others, which is what we all want to do,” he said. “They will use and take advantage of the collection, and help further develop it.”

David Rattigan may be reached at drattigan.globe@gmail.com.