Dna Technology Helps UB Biologists Discover A New Species of Marine Coral New Music Festival A Multicultural Air

Release Date: December 12, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Marine biologists at the University at Buffalo have for the first time used DNA technology to identify a new species of coral.

The work demonstrates that techniques developed in molecular biology to look at mammalian systems have tremendous potential for application to invertebrate systems, including aquatic species that could be the source of important medicinal chemicals.

"We can answer questions with this technology that we otherwise would never have dreamed of," said Howard Lasker, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences at UB and collaborator on the research with Mary Alice Coffroth, Ph.D., research assistant professor of biological sciences at UB.

In research in press with the Bulletin of Marine Science, Lasker, Coffroth and UB graduate student Kiho Kim used DNA technology to discover a new species of gorgonian coral. Called Plexaura kuna, it is named for the Indians of the San Blas Islands in Panama, where it was found.

"The DNA analyses do not provide the only evidence for the existence of this species," said Lasker, "but they remove much of the difficulty that has plagued work on these common coral-reef animals."

According to Coffroth, DNA technology also provides a fast and accurate method of classifying aquatic species, especially larvae, which are notoriously difficult to identify. That work is reported in a paper in press in Limnology & Oceanography by Coffroth and UB undergraduate John Mulawka.

"When you collect larvae, they all look the same," said Coffroth. "You are pulling nondescript samples up out of the water and you might think they all belong to the same species, but genetic analysis proves otherwise. With these molecular biology techniques, you have a relatively simple and fast way to find out what you have. Now when we take a sample of larvae, we can say which adult it will turn into."

That information is key, Lasker explained, particularly for preserving biodiversity.

"Coral reefs, like rain forests, are treasure troves of potential pharmaceuticals," he said. "The key is to characterize and conserve."

According to Coffroth, preserving marine biodiversity depends on the ability to distinguish between different species.

"We want to know whether a species population is sustainable," she said. "With genetic analysis, we know for sure which species are down there, and how abundant they are. That's often not easy to tell. By using DNA technology, we know for sure, for example, that our new species is not just a variant of one we already knew about. And with DNA, you can look at the whole genome; other techniques look at only a small portion of it."

While DNA analysis allows identification of species still in the larval stage, the conventional method requires samples from fully grown individuals.

"Now the larvae can provide us with a molecular signature," said Lasker.

The ability to rapidly identify marine invertebrate larvae has commercial applications, particularly for development of new pharmaceuticals based on marine compounds.

"As compounds are discovered in different organisms, and as we move into harvesting these resources, these techniques for identifying larvae and adults will be crucial components in understanding and determining whether or not they may be exploited as sustainable resources," said Lasker.

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