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Luke Goldman: Using eDNA to save Atlantic cod – UMaine News

Luke Goldman was working as a sea lifeguard on the Jersey Shore when he decided he wanted to study ecology. Now he’s headed up the East Coast to become a different kind of marine protector: a researcher at the forefront of using eDNA to try to save Atlantic cod.

After graduating from high school in his native New Jersey, Goldman attended community college for a few years before applying to the University of Maine. He was drawn to the vast natural spaces that were perfect for a budding ecologist to study and explore, as well as the interdisciplinary nature of the ecology and environmental science curriculum.

“It’s very easy to collaborate with other departments,” says Goldman. “I can take courses in molecular and environmental biology, and courses in philosophy and anthropology. I feel like you get these interdepartmental connections.

Goldman was first introduced to the concept of eDNA, where DNA in the environment is used to study the organisms that live there, through a Research Learning Experience (RLE) course. The advanced scientific technique immediately piqued his interest.

“It’s a field in its infancy. It’s only really been around for 10 years, and for more specific fields of study like marine biology, it’s only been used for about five years. It’s a frontier area in science right now,” Goldman says.

At the end of the course, he asked his professor Peter Avis if he had any research opportunities to study eDNA. Avis said no, but his wife Erin Grey, assistant professor of aquatic genetics and director of the Gray Aquatics Lab, did.

Goldman officially met Gray at a college job fair, and she hired him to work in the lab in October 2021. Gray says Goldman’s strong background in ecology and molecular biology — that interdisciplinary mix that brought Goldman to UMaine in the first place – made him a perfect fit for the eDNA project.

“You have to be able to understand both,” Gray says. “He had this unique combination.”

Goldman is working on a project that uses eDNA to determine cod spawning locations in the Gulf of Maine. Atlantic cod have been functionally extinct since the late 19th century due to overfishing and warming oceans. The loss of cod has been economically and ecologically devastating to the Gulf of Maine, and populations have not been able to rebound like some other overfished species in the region once regulations were put in place. Marine scientists aren’t sure why, but one theory is that something is wrong with their spawn. The exact spawning locations and times of cod are not well known in the Gulf of Maine, but may be easier to find using eDNA.

“We don’t really know where they breed,” Gray says. “We know a few areas, but it’s a big gulf and they spawn near the bottom. Since it may be easier to collect eDNA from water samples, it might be easier for us to detect it.

Goldman takes water samples from spawning cod in a controlled laboratory environment and uses a process called qPCR, or quantitative polymerase chain reaction, to select for specific genes found only in cod. Throughout the process, primers and probes act as “selective magnets” for the tiny sequence of genes, which are multiplied until there are enough of them to be detected.

Depending on how long the DNA takes to amplify, Goldman can determine whether the DNA sequence he’s looking at is “background noise” or important enough to be related to spawning. After all, cod release large amounts of DNA into the water when they spawn.

“He really kind of took ownership of the project,” Gray says. “The early PCR test had a few issues that we needed to address and he really leaned in and sorted that out.”

Gray says Goldman’s work with eDNA promises to detect cod in a general area, but she also hopes to get eRNA involved in the project at some point. RNAs are smaller subsets of DNA with specific instructions to, as Gray puts it, “do something in the moment.” A cod makes RNAs in eye cells to make eye proteins, for example, or squamous cell RNAs to make squamous proteins.

Similarly, cod material collected from the water samples where the fish release their eggs and sperm will exhibit specific RNA related to spawning.

“If we can find spawn-related RNAs, that would be a game-changer for the field,” Gray says.

Eventually, the researchers aim to give fishermen the ability to take samples and send them to a lab to perform eDNA testing to find cod in the field. Goldman even had the opportunity to go out with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to see if they could catch spawning cod to collect field samples for testing. They didn’t catch any cod spawning that day — Goldman said future researchers will have to see if what he finds in the lab can be applied in the field — but he still had a great time. day fishing.

Goldman hopes to continue using its eDNA skills to solve complex environmental and ecological problems. His end goal is to use what he learned at Gray Aquatics Lab about eDNA to study fungi in soils, specifically how fungal communities moved in response to synthetic fertilizer applications and scavenging. that has occurred since the cessation of fertilizer application. He is doing an internship as a technician in aquatic and wetland ecosystems for a doctorate. student studying groundwater infiltration, which he says has “definitely heightened” his interest in soil.

“I’ve always had a passion for growing and gardening and I want to have a farm one day. I took the science from the ground [with Ivan Fernandez] last semester and I really fell in love.

But first, he says, “We have to save the cod.”

Contact: Sam Schipani, [email protected]

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