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Taking Inventory of the Ocean

The Diversity Initiative for the Southern California Ocean will catalog the marine invertebrates on our shores

Scientists will learn more about marine invertebrates like these bat stars (Patiria miniata).

The sunny coast of Southern California is home to thousands of species of marine invertebrates: worms, crabs, sea stars, sea jellies, snails, sponges, and scores of other creatures. They spend their days floating in the water, buried in the sand, or sloshing around tidepools. These fascinating animals and the complex ecosystems they live in are notoriously difficult to study. Some of them are microscopic; others live in hard-to-reach habitats. Most of them are slippery. Undeterred, scientists want to understand these dynamic and fragile ecosystems and how they change over time, and leave a record of their health for posterity. But what’s the best way to do that?

The NHMLA Marine Biodiversity Center’s new Diversity Initiative for the Southern California Ocean (DISCO) will catalog and monitor these coastal communities in a whole new way — by looking for their DNA in seawater.

Living things leave traces of DNA behind as they go about their lives, as they shed cells, eliminate waste, and — ahem — reproduce. In the marine environment, this wealth of information is just floating around in the water. Researchers can take advantage of this to study entire ecosystems without having to find and sample each animal directly, like underwater forensic scientists.

California coastal commission whale tail license plate
DISCO is the recipient of one of the grants funded by the sale of official California Coastal Commision license plates.

With funding from the California Coastal Commission Whale Tail® Grants Program, DISCO researchers are developing a suite of new tools to use this environmental DNA, or eDNA, to survey the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 different marine invertebrate species off our coast.

“For me, the most exciting part of this project is building the ability to census L.A.'s marine world so efficiently that we'll get to see them respond to climate change and urbanization right as those changes are happening,” said Associate Curator Regina Wetzer.

First on the to-do list is building up a genetic reference library for these organisms, which means getting a DNA sample from a representative of each marine invertebrate. With thousands of species to add, this is no small task.

Some of the marine invertebrates DISCO will monitor are quite small, like this polychaete worm. It's less than a quarter of an inch in length. Photo by Leslie Harris, Polychaete Collections Manager.

Scientists in the Museum’s Marine Biodiversity Center are using specimens from existing collections, new fieldwork, and external contributions to build this library of genetic barcodes — unique DNA signatures for each species. They’re adding our local Southern California marine invertebrates (as well as invasive species) to the International Barcode of Life Database. So far, they've sequenced about 300 species, and expect to contribute at least a couple thousand more.

With this comprehensive library of species-specific barcodes, DNA samples pulled from seawater can be cross-checked with this resource. This could be used to confirm the presence of an invasive species or provide a snapshot of a marine community as a whole, from the tiniest crabs to the most elusive octopuses. This will revolutionize how we study — and in turn, understand and preserve — these fascinating ecosystems.


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