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Sea Research Foundation and University of Connecticut collaborate on new “DNA, Red Tide And The Sea” exhibit

By Mystic Aquarium

Exhibit is part of ongoing research partnership between two Connecticut institutions

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What is DNA? How is it connected to red tide? And why is it important to know? “DNA, Red Tide and the Sea,” an interactive new exhibit at Mystic Aquarium, a division of Sea Research Foundation, Inc., answers all these questions while giving guests a look at our oceans on a whole new (microscopic) level.

The outreach component of a four-year, $1 million National Science Foundation grant, the exhibit highlights research led by Senjie Lin, professor of marine sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point.

Working with colleagues at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Maryland’s Center of Marine Biotechnology and the Venter Institute, Professor Lin is trying to determine which genes are active when a red tide is formed and toxins are produced in dinoflagellates, a microscopic plant, or phytoplankton. Professor Lin’s research on phytoplankton is focused on dinoflagellates because of their multi-faceted features: they provide food for animals in the sea and are indispensible for the growth of coral reefs, yet they are also major contributors to a coastal environmental hazard, red tide and marine toxins.

Dissecting the DNA codes that make dinoflagellates unique and able to form red tides and produce toxins may someday help scientists find genetic markers that will predict when a toxic red tide is forming and its intensity. Toxins from red tide can spread up the food chain, from shellfish to marine animals to humans, causing illness and, in some cases, death.

“Understanding the DNA structure is the key to cracking the secret behind dinoflagellates’ ability to form red tides and produce toxins, and that endeavor is accessible to anyone, as you can experience in the exhibit,” said Lin, who hopes the exhibit will trigger interest in science among children.

Upon entering the exhibit, guests pass through a large arch that reveals the genetic code of mitotic cyclin, a universal protein that controls cell division, including in red tide-producing dinoflagellates. A genome similarity dial can be spun to reveal how humans’ genetic makeup compares to that of various animals, plants and organisms, including the chimp, puffer fish, bacteria and rice. At the Codon Hoedown, guests can build a virtual DNA strand by following the correct chemical base sequence, or code, on a dance pad. In a nearby lab area, University of Connecticut science students guide kids in extracting DNA from fruit and capturing it in a necklace they can take home.

Previously, parts of this exhibit were on display at Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. A team of craftsmen at Mystic Aquarium fabricated the DNA arch, 10-foot-high DNA double helix sculpture and DNA lab to round out the exhibit.

“DNA is the building block of life, and consequently connects us with marine life in many ways,” said Dr. Tracy Romano, senior vice president of research and zoological operation at Sea Research. “This exhibit reveals our genetic similarities to various creatures, how genes vary and the incredible ways in which DNA plays a role in everything, from eye color to species determination to the creation of toxic waters that affect human health and the health of our oceans.”

The exhibit is part of an established research partnership between Sea Research and UConn, in which graduate students’ marine research is supported by both institutions. In addition, Dr. Tracy Romano, senior vice president of research and zoological operations at Sea Research, serves on the faculty at UConn. Working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the two institutions also helped form the I-RICH Consortium, an interdisciplinary graduate training and post-doctoral mentoring initiative that focuses on major problems impacting coastal ecosystems and how these problems relate to human health.

For more information on the “DNA, Red Tide and the Sea” exhibit, including a lab schedule and more details on Professor Lin’s research, visit searesearch.org.

About Sea Research Foundation, Inc.

Mystic Aquarium, Institute for Exploration and Immersion Learning are divisions of Sea Research Foundation, Inc., a non-profit 501(c)3organization. The mission of Sea Research is to inspire people to care for and protect our ocean planet through education, research and exploration.

About the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UConn

The College of Liberal Art and Sciences at UConn is the home of the Department of Marine Sciences and 22 other departments in the sciences, humanities and social sciences. Its 600 faculty and more than 15,000 students contribute to our understanding of the environment; health and human behavior; and culture and society.

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