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Marine scientist uses genetics to inform conservation

by Thea Singer

Kath­leen Lot­terhos is a con­ser­va­tionist with the aca­d­emic arsenal to make a dif­fer­ence. The new assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Sci­ence brings together mol­e­c­ular biology, genetics, and bioin­for­matics to under­stand how populations—on land and at sea—will respond both eco­log­i­cally and evo­lu­tion­arily to our ever-​​changing environment.

I’m par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in ques­tions about con­nec­tivity in marine populations—how species move from one loca­tion to another,” says Lot­terhos, who grew up on a lake in upstate New York, and has “always loved the water.” “Theory shows that reserves that are con­nected are more effec­tive in con­serving pop­u­la­tions than ones that aren’t.”

How species from pine trees to Pacific rock­fish adapt to cli­mate change affects how we live—the air we breathe, the food we eat—as well, says Lotterhos.

Kathleen Lotterhaus doing research at the MSC

To track how Pacific rock­fish travel, she ana­lyzes genetic pat­terns in indi­vidual fish from dif­ferent loca­tions using a tiny “fin clip” as a tissue sample. Because DNA is inher­ited, if a genetic pat­tern in a fish from, say, Cana­dian waters matches that of a fish caught off the shores of Oregon, she knows that the pop­u­la­tions are “connected”—that those fish, or their off­spring, have moved from one loca­tion to the other.

Such find­ings raise ques­tions about sus­tain­ability, says Lot­terhos. For example: How does the ocean envi­ron­ment in dif­ferent loca­tions con­tribute to the suc­cess of pop­u­la­tions? Can we use genetics to assist in that suc­cess, and if so, in what way?

If we want to under­stand how pop­u­la­tions will respond to envi­ron­mental change in the future, we have to under­stand how they’ve adapted in the past,” says Lot­terhos. “We have to under­stand the genetic basis of that adap­ta­tion and ask: Intrin­si­cally, does that pop­u­la­tion have the ability to adapt on its own?”

At North­eastern, Lot­terhos will tackle those ques­tions in both the field and her lab at the Marine Sci­ence Center.

I feel so at home here,” she says. “The loca­tion of the MSC is beau­tiful and the fac­ulty are the best in their fields. I have over­lap­ping inter­ests with everyone here, but also my own unique per­spec­tive. I see our col­lab­o­ra­tions leading to major advances in all of our disciplines.”

Originally published in news@Northeastern on October 5, 2015.

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