COURTESY HAWAII INSTITUTE OF MARINE BIOLOGY
Students discuss conservation strategies for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal in an international conservation genetics course at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island. There are 28 students from 16 countries and a dozen experts in the field from around the world joining University of Hawaii faculty. CLICK FOR LARGE
Saving species with genetics comes to UH
The course is being taught at Coconut Island to scientists from 16 countries
A unique course applying genetics to solve problems affecting humans and other species is being taught at Coconut Island in Kaneohe Bay to 28 young scientists from 16 countries.
About a dozen international authorities on genetics have joined University of Hawaii faculty to teach the course, which began Jan. 7 and ends Saturday.
It is sponsored by the American Genetics Association and directed by Stephen O'Brien, chief of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity and the Section of Genomics at the National Institutes of Health.
He is the leading authority on conservation genetics of big cats -- tigers, lions, the Florida panther and cheetah.
"The tools of genetics are traditionally thought of as something about hereditary diseases in people, how to avoid and treat them," O'Brien said in an interview.
But there are other applications, he said, pointing out that genes of every species "have relics or footprints of historic events we're just learning how to interpret. One of the outcomes is to better understand what the threats are to some of the dwindling endangered species."
Students taking the conservation course "came here to learn how molecular genetics can impact the history of species," he said.
"This really is the best course of its kind in the world, bar none," said Brian Bowen, assistant researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island.
He is hosting the course with institute Director Jo-Ann Leong, Assistant Director Jane Ball, five faculty and seven graduate students.
"The demand for the course is enormous," Bowen said, with 96 applicants from 34 countries. Those chosen have such diverse specialties as baboons, penguins, marine otters, manatees, large plants, elephants and horseshoe crabs.
They are "at the cusp of working on these (conservation) problems" or in a position to apply knowledge or data to conservation efforts, O'Brien said.
The course has been held for about 10 years at the Smithsonian/National Zoo Conservation and Research Center in Virginia.
Bowen said O'Brien has come here to visit friends and colleagues at the UH medical school, and "it's been our dream to put on the course here."
"One of the primary goals is to put conservation tools into the hands of the right people in the developing world. For many this is an opportunity of a lifetime."
Bowen said the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology wanted to put greater emphasis on marine problems, particularly with the new Marine National Monument in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.
Scientists are applying conservation genetics to marine fish to learn if reefs miles apart are connected by fish larvae or are isolated, he said. "We're taking DNA to see if they're cousins.
"If they're well connected and one gets whacked by a cyclone, oil spill or wreck, they'll recover quickly. If they're isolated, they have to recover on their own, which means they're more fragile."
Conservation genetics involves taking the tools of genetics to solve real problems, O'Brien said.
Looking at human genetics and genes involved in deadly infectious diseases, he and his collaborators uncovered a genetic variance that influences what happens when a person is exposed to HIV.
It is a gene that causes complete resistance to HIV "if a person is lucky enough to carry it," O'Brien said.
He and his associates have concentrated on the genomics of cats, such as how their genes are organized relative to humans.
"We studied various members of the cat family to try to understand the timing of divergence of ancestors of the species -- when did they start -- and also worked on a lot of viruses in cats," he said.
O'Brien said the work in humans and animals "balances each other. Humans learn from animals and wildlife people, and vice versa.
"We have a lot of challenges here. A lot of diseases are filling up hospitals."
He is encouraging friends at the medical school "to get more into the genetics side of things."