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SDSU Researchers Use New Genetic Technology To Save Sharks

The fin of a great white shark is seen swimming a past research boat in the w...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: The fin of a great white shark is seen swimming a past research boat in the waters off Gansbaai, South Africa, Aug. 11, 2016.

San Diego State University Research labs have developed a new genetic screening method aimed at streamlining shark conservation efforts.

“The 'genome skimming' method enables fast and accurate species identification of all wildlife species including sharks, which can be a huge plus for wildlife officials. For example, the U.S Department of Fish and Wildlife has only one wildlife forensics facility in the country, and it gets backlogged by several months. So it could benefit significantly from using our species identification methods. In addition, the method enables access to large segments of the genome DNA, which can be used to determine population health and size. This data can direct attention to conservation and management of priority concern species, before it's too late,” said SDSU Molecular Conservationist, Shaili Johri.

Johri spoke with Evening Edition anchor Ebone Monet about the conservation efforts.

Reported by Andi Dukleth

Q: Millions of sharks are killed every year. Why is it important to save them?

A: Sharks are really important to marine ecosystems, that are important for top down regulation. So for example, in coral reef ecosystems, sharks are important to maintain the lower most level of small fish that eat algae. If you take away the sharks these populations dwindle, and then coral reefs are covered with algae and that's what we don't want. And that's what's happening in a lot of places where there are no sharks anymore. They're also really important to maintain commercial seafood stocks that are important for human sustenance.

Q: Some shark species have been labeled protected species. Has this helped with conservation efforts?

A: It has helped a little bit because it gives teeth to officials, in case they find people in possession of these protected sharks. But the enforcement and policing is at a very low level. So there is still a lot of loopholes that are taken advantage of.

Q: Can you tell us about this new non-invasive gene-skimming technology that's being used to identify shark species?

A: Traditional methods require a lot of infrastructure to identify species. So if say we wanted to see if there are protected species, and a lot of fins...it's very hard for most people to do so they end up shipping it out. This technology depends on a handheld sequencer. You just put in DNA and you connect it to a laptop computer and you can start getting DNA sequences in real time. You then match these DNA sequences to a reference database, and that tells you what species it is. So it makes it much more streamlined and accessible to everybody.

Q: Can you tell me how it was determined that this device could help in identifying species of sharks?

A: So this device is manufactured, it's called MinION. It's manufactured by Oxford Nanopore Technologies. They’re based in the UK. They came up with this method precisely for field use for clinical purposes, for example, for detecting Ebola outbreaks. We developed this method which requires very little prep compared to other methods and combining that with this device makes it really feasible.

Q: So how does identifying a shark species help protect the shark?

A: So using this method if we detect somebody in possession of fins that are from the scientists protected species and that they're being exported then that gives us teeth to implement laws that tell them they shouldn't be doing that and penalize them.

Q: How crucial is it to increase conservation efforts for certain species of sharks?

A: It is very important to increase conservation efforts for sharks because they are at the top of the food chain. So if we don't conserve sharks and protect remaining populations we are going to be struggling for our own seafood supplies. Also sharks reproduce very slowly, they mature very slowly, and they produce very few young. So even if we take out a few individuals from a population we are causing very long term damage, and they are really sensitive to over fishing. So it's really important that we protect and conserve sharks.

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