University Researchers Launch Genomics Studies of Fish Populations Affected by Oil Spills

Published: September 02, 2015

University Researchers Launch Genomics Studies of Fish Populations Affected by Oil Spills

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – How do oil spills affect the sustainability of fishes in the Gulf of Mexico? Two local researchers are helping to find answers.

Dr. John Gold, Harte Research Institute Endowed Chair for Genetics and Biodiversity, and Dr. David Portnoy, Assistant Professor of Marine Biology, both at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, are working with the Center for Integrated Modeling and Analysis of the Gulf Ecosystem (C-IMAGE II) on a broad, multi-investigator study focusing on the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Gold and Portnoy will research genomic changes in Gulf of Mexico fish species, like Red Snapper and Golden Tilefish. Genomics focuses on the interactions of genes across all chromosomes. The scientists are working to find out if the oil spill will have any long-term effects on the sustainability of different species of fish in the Gulf. They began their research in January and will continue to gather information over the next three years.

“The invitation to take part in this research was from C-IMAGE and includes other researchers at the Harte Research Institute,” said Gold. “To our knowledge, our team in the Marine Genomics Laboratory is the only group in the region who are looking at population-level genomics of fishes that live in the waters of the continental shelf.”

Gold says that the team of researchers is especially interested in Golden Tilefish because they live in deep waters on the continental shelf and burrow into the ground, meaning they are very closely associated with and continually exposed to oil and oil dispersants that have settled on the ocean floor.

C-IMAGE, which is based at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, is a consortium of many different universities, research organizations, and scientists, all of whom are funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative. Their goal is to analyze the after-effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico and learn how to best respond to any spills that take place in the future.

“There are other scientists focusing on genetic and genomic areas of research, but they are working almost exclusively on microbial organisms,” stated Gold. “Our lab is the only group that’s looking at population-level, long-term genomics as a function of exposure to the oil spill.”

The research is also giving students an opportunity to gain experience in the field of genomics. Both graduates and undergraduates will help with the research, giving them an opportunity to learn and get first-hand experience with new technology such as next-generation sequencing on Illumina HiSeq and MiSeq platforms and use of advanced analytical pipelines for bioinformatics analysis.

“We are using cutting-edge techniques, so there’s an opportunity for students to gain experience and see how genomics can be applied to conservation and management of our natural resources,” said Portnoy.

Gold, Portnoy, and some of their students and colleagues will participate in a research expedition cruise set up by C-IMAGE in the fall. The expedition will last 21 days and will run from St. Petersburg, Fla., to Veracruz, Mexico. Samples collected from different fishes along the route will allow scientists to compare them against samples taken in other areas of the Gulf. The comparison will help them better understand the effects of the oil spill across the Gulf.