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Genetics of sea creatures: One researcher uses her science training to help the environment

IMG_2195Lauren Liddell, PhD, developed a passion for genetics early at a girls science day at her Michigan middle school, when she extracted the DNA of a banana.

Nearly two decades later, Liddell now works as a postdoctoral research fellow in genetics at the School of Medicine. Unlike most of her colleagues who study human health, Liddell is applying her molecular genetics expertise to one of the most critical environmental challenges that we face today: climate change. I recently spoke with Liddell about her research and her participation in the Rising Environmental Leadership Program, a year-round program that helps graduate students and postdoctoral fellows hone their leadership and communications skills.

How did you end up studying sea anemones at Stanford?

As a freshly minted PhD studying molecular genetics, I approached John Pringle, PhD, about working as a postdoc in his lab... Several years ago, John's passion for scuba diving and overall curiosity led him to shift his research to tackle environmental problems. Specifically, we're trying to understand sea anemone-algae symbiosis, in the hopes of discovering things that may be useful for coral conservation.

Coral reefs are a poster child for climate change right now, because coral is dying -- about 35 percent of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia is already dead or dying through a process called bleaching. Bleaching is caused by the loss of the symbiotic algae that live in the guts of coral. Normally, the gut algae collect energy from the sun and turn it into food that supports the life of the coral host. As ocean temperatures rise and the ocean acidifies, the algae leave the coral host and the coral starves and bleaches -- bleached coral reefs are basically the skeletons.

So we use sea anemones in the lab to study coral, similar to how scientists use mice to study human processes. We're studying Aiptasia sea anemones as a model for coral reef bleaching, because sea anemones are easier to work with in the lab and they have the same gut algae, Symbiodinium, as coral reefs. We want to understand what goes wrong with symbiosis when ocean temperatures and acidity increase.

What have you found?

We're trying various genetic methods to identify the genes that are important for this symbiosis. We're also investigating how some corals are able to survive bleaching, whereas others die off. We have two main strains of sea anemones and multiple "flavors" of Symbiodinium algae that we use to test how the different environmental stressors, like heat and acidity, affect symbiosis.

Surprisingly, we've found that the Hawaiian sea anemone is less tolerant to heat stress than the Floridian strain. And even more exciting, we've found that the Symbiodinium "flavor" can affect the ability of the sea anemone host to resist heat.

What was the Rising Environmental Leadership Program like?

The Rising Environmental Leadership Program (RELP) is an exciting program for people who are passionate about making a real impact on society. The program included a week-long boot camp in Washington D.C., where we met with Congress, nonprofit organizations like the Nature Conservancy, and governmental agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy... We really got to see firsthand how science research directly informs science policy.

What do you want to do next?

Originally, I wanted to be a liberal arts professor, because I love teaching and getting people excited about science. But moving to the Bay Area really opened my eyes to many other opportunities to make an impact. For instance, companies like 23andMe can help people understand their genetics and what that means for their health.

I'm currently looking for careers in biotech. Once I've gained some business skills though, I plan to apply for an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship to get more firsthand experience with policymaking. My RELP experience made it blatantly clear that we need to train the politicians about science, so they can make informed decisions that impact our future.

Previously: Annoying anemones shed light on coral reef biologyFrom yeast to coral reefs: Research that extends beyond the lab and At Stanford, Rep. Jerry McNerney discusses life in Congress, science funding and the value of squash
Photo courtesy of Lauren Liddell

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