MARQUETTE, Mich.—Alec Lindsay, a Northern Michigan University biology professor, has spent the past 18 years studying the evolution and behavior of the common loon, which is a threatened species in Michigan. Now his research will extend beyond field work as he begins a genetic analysis of the loon population. As the 2012-13 Peter White Scholar at NMU Lindsay has received a grant to initiate the project.
“Sequencing across the entire loon genome is a little ambitious,” Lindsay said. “The human genome took 13 years and $3 billion to complete. My lab work will consume about 12 weeks and a few thousand dollars. There are about 1 billion base pairs in the loon genome, compared with 3 billion in humans. We will incorporate genetic data into our understanding of loons’ interaction with the environment and their life history.
“For example, we have reason to believe that the major histocompatability complex (MHC) genes of loons play a role in mercury-induced autoimmune dysfunction. If the genetic data help to determine there is indeed an association between MHC genes and loons’ susceptibility to mercury, we can look across the population and assess how birds might be impacted by environmental mercury. Mercury doesn’t affect loons’ behavior or physiology, but it’s unclear how it affects their productivity.”
If contaminants such as mercury do affect reproduction, resulting in fewer chicks to contribute to the population, that could be one factor contributing to the threatened status of the species in Michigan. Another might be the loss of breeding grounds, as lake habitats have diminished over the past two centuries. Lindsay said loons venture on land only one month out of the year to lay and incubate their eggs. They spend the remaining time on water.
Lindsay and a graduate student will complete the prep work of extracting DNA and RNA, purifying the samples and working with a genome sequencing center to perform “next-generation” sequencing. He said the company will return “hundreds of textbooks’ worth of genetic data” on the common loon. His lab will then begin the arduous task of analyzing those raw data in evolutionary and conservation contexts.
This work aligns with the international Genome 10K Project, which seeks to assemble a collection of DNA sequences representing the genomes of 10,000 vertebrate species. Capturing their genetic diversity would lead to a better understanding of how complex animal life evolved through changes in DNA and create an “unprecedented” resource for the life sciences and world conservation efforts.
During a sabbatical last year, Lindsay received National Science Foundation support to collaborate with Boston University researchers on a related genetic sequencing project. This allowed him to familiarize himself with the technology and data analysis he will use in studying the loon genome.
The Peter White Scholar Award is intended to support faculty who have a proven scholarly record and are undertaking a project that would significantly advance their work.