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Possibilities, Obstacles of Polar Genomics Come Into Focus at International Genomics Meeting

VANCOUVER (GenomeWeb News) – Polar genomics offer unique challenges and opportunities, researchers heard yesterday at the Genome Canada international conference in Vancouver.
Genomic scientist Melody Clark, a project leader at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, UK, outlined some of the progress and goals of the project, an environmental genomics effort aimed at understanding the genetics behind biodiversity and ecosystems in the Antarctic and Arctic.
Many predict that the effects of climate change will have regional effects — disproportionately impacting the North and South Poles. As such, the team is keen to understand the current biodiversity and species composition in these regions so that they can predict the consequences of environmental changes.
The broader British Antarctic Survey has been operating under the auspices of the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for nearly six decades. These days, genomics is a key player in some aspects of British Antarctic Survey research, along with other research fields such as ecology, physiology, and computational biology.
Despite the group’s name, Clark noted, the team is interested in both Antarctica and the Arctic. “I would argue that there’s a very good case for looking at both poles — for doing bipolar research,” she said.
Although Antarctic animals have been evolving for much longer than those in the Arctic, Clark said, research questions are similar in both places: the team wants to know how animals have adapted to their environments as well as how they might react to changes in temperature and/or acidity.
And genomics is more than just a set of genes and their functions in an individual organism, Clark emphasized. It also encompasses questions about how genes influence species survival in, and adaptation to, the environment, along with interactions with other organisms. Consequently, the team is interested in exploring the whole ecosystem — not just the high profile animals such as Antarctica’s penguins or polar bears in the Arctic.
In particular, Clark and her team are focusing on marine and terrestrial invertebrates at the poles because, as she explained, “We can’t all work on the cute stuff. We also have to work on the ugly stuff.”
The work presents unique challenges, not only because of the extreme environment, but also because researchers are generally working without the benefit of reference genomes. “You have to start up absolutely everything from scratch,” Clark explained.
For instance, the team has worked very hard to come up with about 16,000 ESTs for a small insect called the Arctic springtail. For the sea star, they have just two gene fragments so far. Even the “cute, cuddly” polar bear is poorly understood genomically, Clark noted, with fewer than 100 polar bears genes described in the NCBI database.
Clark and her colleagues are also keen to uncover the molecules that help polar organisms survive under environmental stress. Clark, whose main interest lies in heat shock proteins — the “emergency first aid kit” of the cell — explained that looking at these and other stress-related proteins may provide clues about evolutionary histories in each region.
In the future, Clark said, the team hopes to delve into functional biodiversity at the poles using approaches such as 454 sequencing of transcriptomes, proteomics, and research into stress genes that may eventually uncover biomarkers. But such approaches will be expensive and difficult to implement, she added.
And because there are special considerations associated with working at the poles — for instance, in preserving material — the team may eventually need to set up research stations at the poles.
“We need to develop polar genomics resources,” Clark said. “We are resource poor.”
Lloyd Peck, who is currently a theme leader in biodiversity for the UK’s NERC, is expected to provide more insights into polar genomics at the Genome Canada meeting this morning.