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Diversity Initiative for the Southern California Ocean (DISCO)

Posted by Dean Pentcheff | California, United States

Genetic “barcode” technology could let us rapidly identify all the marine invertebrates from environmental samples. That would transform our ability to detect how our coast is responding to the changing ocean. Without that ability, important aspects of coastal managment are based largely on guesswork. Identifying species using genetic sequences requires a library with a reference sequence for every species. Right now, that library exists, but most species don’t have a registered sequence. Therefore, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is launching a program to obtain and register a genetic “barcode” reference sequence for all the marine invertebrates of Southern California.

To see how thousands of coastal species are responding to change, we need much more detail than we’ve traditionally gained by monitoring a relative handful of species. Without a fine-grained ability to detect where species are appearing and disappearing, we can’t begin to describe the problems we’re experiencing, let alone frame solutions. There just aren’t enough taxonomists to ramp up traditional surveys so that we can get that detail.

There is an established technology that can solve this problem: species identification using molecular genetics (genetic “barcoding”). In one run of a high-throughput genetic sequencer, all the species in an entire field sample could be identified by matching the unique sequences for a few “barcode” genes in the whole sample against a library of reference sequences.

But there’s a problem right now that’s stopping us from implementing that technology. A reference library of “barcode” sequences exists at the “Barcode of Life Database” (BOLD). However, the library’s coverage of marine invertebrates for Southern California is woefully inadequate. Most of the species found on our coast have never had reference sequences filed at BOLD. Without that library, sequencing a field sample yields just a list of gene sequences, not a list of species in the sample.

To fill out the genetic reference library, we need to acquire molecular-grade specimens of each species, have each specimen reputably identified by experts, and get its genetic “barcode” sequence registered.

At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, we propose a program to discover and register the genetic barcode sequences of all marine invertebrate species larger than a few millimeters along the whole Southern California coastline from Point Conception to the Mexican border, and from the intertidal zone to 1,000 meters deep. We estimate there are between 3,000 and 5,000 species to find, identify, sequence, and register.

We have already identified committed partners at the University of Southern California, the University of California Los Angeles, numerous monitoring agencies participating in the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, and expert taxonomists to help with reputable specimen identification.

Having a fully-populated reference library of genetic “barcode” sequences for the marine invertebrate community of Southern California will transform our ability to detect and measure change. By allowing far more extensive sampling across space, time, and taxonomic depth than is currently possible, molecular identification of entire invertebrate communities will create an unprecedented research and detection network.

This is the critical tool that will allow ecologists, climate change researchers, and monitoring agencies to see how our coast is responding to our changing ocean. This tool is a key component necessary for us to plan how we can best live with our coast.

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