Field Work Expedition 02 - Bimini, Bahamas, August 2019

What is Epigenetics?

Epigenetics modulates how our DNA works by way of specific marks, epigenetic marks. One of them is DNA methylation, connecting the environment, your genome, and your phenotype by turning genes on and off in response to what you encounter in the environment.

Epigenetics refers to changes in your phenotype, including what you see (e.g., hair color) as well as what you do not (e.g., how much of a hormone is expressed), that do not correlate to changes in the DNA sequence. Most people are familiar with genetics, especially with all the new kits out there (like 23 and me) to find out your ancestry and learn about genes that might have implications for your health.

For example, if you find out that you have a version of a gene (called alleles) that has been correlated to a disease, that does not always mean that you will definitely get this disease. It might depend on what other factors you have been exposed to during your life, such as smoking or eating junk food all the time. This is just one of the many ways in which epigenetics might be important to understand why, among people sharing the same allele, some suffer diseases while others do not.

Environmental Epigenetics helps develop tools that can help

obtain important information on these animals, such as age,

exposures to stressors in the environment, and to learn how

these animals are physically affected by stressors.

Why Epigenetics in Shark Conservation?

Sharks encounter many threats in the environment ranging from fishing pressure to pollutants. On top of this, these animals are large in size and highly mobile, making them very hard to study in many aspects. Biopsy darting has opened the door for us to obtain small tissue samples on even the largest and hardest species to collect information from. However, these samples are usually not enough to gather all the information we might need for comprehensive studies using traditional experimental approaches. That is why I have chosen to study epigenetics in these animals, as this new discipline helps develop tools that can help us obtain important information on these animals, such as age, exposures to stressors in the environment, and to learn how these animals are physically affected by stressors.

Because DNA methylation changes with age and in response to the environment, there is a lot of information we can gather by studying these marks. For example from my project funded by Save Our Seas, in Bimini, different nursery areas are subjected to differing amounts of human disturbance. By conducting epigenetic analyses, we will be able to identify specific patterns that correlate to these different stressors, and if we look at where these marks occur in the genome we can learn more about how these stressors affect shark traits such as physiology, behavior, or reproduction.

Ph.D. Candidate at the Environmental Epigenetics Lab

Bottom Time With Andria Beal

Andria is a PhD student at FIU’s Environmental Epigenetics Lab under the supervision of Dr. Jose Eirin-Lopez. As a graduate Research Assistant funded by FIU’s CREST-CAChE and FIU Tropics, she is at the helm of this work, from fieldwork organization to lab experiments and analyses.

"It is really a privilege to be working on a project addressing fundamental questions for shark conservation, especially at this precise moment when many believe is our last chance to take action to save these animals."

How did you become interested in the biology of sharks?

There is nothing better than seeing a shark while diving. These animals have captured my heart, they are top predators that demand respect and rightfully so with how important they are to the ecosystem… and also because they have a lot of sharp teeth. But it’s not just that, biologically these animals rock! Sharks have been on Earth for such a long time, their skeletons are fully made out of cartilage, and they even have the longest living vertebrate in their group (check out the Greenland shark if you haven’t heard). If you’ve wondered about the anti-cancer rumors, the white shark genome project just found evidence to support this! From a biology standpoint, these guys are insanely important to study. 

What is the most important contribution of this project to the assessment and conservation of sharks?

The field of environmental epigenetics shows promise in the creation of molecular tools that can be used to obtain general information, such as age or exposure status, but could also be used to assess population health. This particular project is working towards finding biomarkers of exposure. This task requires an understanding of how epigenetic marks look in general for sharks and we know very little about this. In addition to potentially identifying biomarkers of exposure to trace heavy metals, this project is going to kick open the door (and I mean an intense feel-good kick) to using epigenetics to study sharks for conservation measures. 

Once this project is complete, what do you think would be the next step in shark research?

Pushing on to find biomarkers of other stressors, developing new tools to obtain population information, and using epigenetic marks for health assessments. For environmental epigenetics work, the world is an open book of studies to be done.

How will this project impact your future scientific development?

This project is preparing me for all the future studies to be done. Once we start to know a little more about these sharks and their epigenetic marks, we can start to really develop molecular tools to help manage and conserve their populations. A career goal of mine is to start my own research facility and I believe this project is the perfect start to the long line of work that could help develop and kick off this facility.