How New Technology Will Help Save the Sea Otter


I think we can all agree, sea otters are absolutely adorable, and are very important to the well-being of coastal ecosystems (a community of living organisms and their environment that interact to form a system). However, the sea otter was hunted almost to the point of extinction by fur traders in the 1800’s. Thanks to protective laws their populations have begun to return, but in California they have yet to recover to the numbers that once thrived there.

But now, thanks to the efforts of Annabel Beichman and The Monterey Bay Aquarium, there is a new way to help the otters! Monterey Bay Aquarium will be the first to sequence the entire sea otter genome (an organism’s complete set of DNA).

But how will having their DNA help? Because of massive fur trading, otters suffered a “population bottleneck.” This means that when their population was severely decreased and only a few individuals survived, then once the population re-expanded the population will most likely all be related to these individuals. This can cause serious problems for the otters, because a limited gene pool leads to mutations that can make them more vulnerable to disease and other disasters. By sequencing the DNA of otters from different population groups, the scientists will be able to understand changes in the DNA over time and how the “bottleneck” has affected the population. They will be able to identify harmful mutations, and can introduce otters from different populations to help increase gene diversity within a group. The researchers will sequence 10 individual otters from 6 different populations, and even take DNA from otter remains recovered from Native village sites.

New advances in technology have made genome sequencing possible at a reasonable cost, and I hope that we will be able to continue using these amazing advances to protect and learn about the species that are so important to our planet.

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Jan 12, 2016

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