They haven’t resurrected Mr. Spock in the National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation, but they’re hard at work on his tricorder.
Where the “Star Trek” science officer would wave his little satchel and detect the presence of life on alien planets, the technicians in the U.S. Forest Service’s new lab building can spot the presence (or absence) of specific fish in a whole river drainage from a cup of water.
They can trace the family tree of a sage grouse from a tail feather. Don’t get them started on what they can tell when a grizzly bear poops in the woods, if they get hold of the poop.
“Five years ago, I was looking at nine areas of an animal’s genome,” lab director Michael Schwartz said of the genetic blueprint carried in every organism’s chromosomes. “If I got up to 20, I felt I was doing really good.
“Now I have a grad student working on sage grouse who’s looking at 600,000 regions of its genome. I have another working on gray wolves who’s looking at 166,000 regions. Now our big question is: What do we do with all that data?”
The simplest answer is: Prove that a species is or isn’t living in a certain spot.
Miners and loggers need to know that so their work doesn’t hurt a federally protected species. Outfitters can learn if their hay has brought in noxious weeds. Biologists can tell whether lynx from the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area have crossed the highway to mate with lynx in the Mission Mountains Wilderness or Glacier National Park.
And the new lab building on the southern edge of the University of Montana campus can produce those answers at a scale that’s cost-effective, reliable and defensible.
That means other scientists can afford to have the tests done, the results will be accurate and when someone challenges them in court or Congress, the answer won’t melt into some fuzzy/sorta/possibly mush.
“We don’t want to deal with false positives or false negatives,” Schwartz said. “We want tests that work in Wyoming or Washington or California. We want protocols that anyone can use.”
Schwartz looks to human medical science for direction. Work on the human genome can tell if someone has a genetic weakness for certain kinds of cancer.
The same techniques can show if bighorn sheep have a genetic defense against lung worms. If some sheep do and others don’t, wildlife managers might want to transplant some hardier animals into weaker herds to keep that genetic trait alive.
That’s where the 600,000 regions of the genome get important. A single test can produce several terabytes of data – the entire hard-drive capacity of a really good commercial desktop computer.
While some scientists in the lab work on simplifying that problem, genomics lab technician Katie Zarn hopes to make their job even tougher. Zarn takes scientific methods developed for human genomic analysis – which doctors use to see if you’re genetically susceptible to many kinds of diseases – and applies them to wildlife research.
“Our lab can get a single eDNA at a time and identify a single species,” Zarn said. “I’m working on a protocol for taking hundreds of samples at the same time to assay for 20, 40, even 100 species.”
That would mean a single cup of creek water could reveal almost every critter in a drainage. You could tell if bull trout lived in its tributaries, and if leafy spurge was infesting its banks, and if osprey were using it as a hunting ground.
The new building in Missoula houses about 20 researchers and technicians. It also has space for visiting scientists to share their problems and expertise as new genomic techniques develop.
The Forest Service owns the lab and has an interwoven relationship with the UM professors and students just across the lawn. It performs research for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies, along with 19 state agencies, numerous Indian tribes, timber companies and nongovernmental organizations.
While it doesn’t bear the man’s name, Schwartz said the lab owes much of its existence to the work of University of Montana professor Fred Allendorf.
“He was the grandfather of conservation genetics,” Schwartz said of the longtime Missoula biologist. “All this local expertise has developed because of the people he taught and mentored. As a result, Missoula is the global place for conservation genetics.”
But where Allendorf spent long seasons in remote drainages of Glacier National Park observing and occasionally catching the critters he studied, the new lab does orders of magnitude more work under fluorescent lamps.
EDNA coordinator Kellie Carim recalled her undergraduate struggles telling one inch-long fish fry species from another during stream studies. Now, a small water sample in her lab will tell her if a state fisheries program to eliminate every invasive brook trout from a mountain stream was successful.
“We tested after they’d finished, and found a brook trout signal,” Carim said. “They went back and found one brook trout about 400 meters from the eradication site. So they had to make a second effort. Otherwise, they would have put all that effort into eradication and bam – the brook trout comes right back.”