What is it that I do?

Hello readers. So today, I thought I would give you a brief introduction to the wonderful world of research that is my daily life. And then tomorrow, go over my first paper with you.

So, generally, I’m interested in the connection between genotype (your genes) and phenotype (what you see, like hair color, eye color, etc.). For me, this includes the intersection of genetics, development, and gross morphology of an organism. My particular
organism of study are African cichlids. These guys are wonderfully, colorful fish. They are found in three lakes in East Africa, Lakes Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victoria. My lab is particularly interested in Lake Malawi. It is estimated that there are about 500 cichlid species in Lake Malawi, all having evolved in the last 2 million years. And in case you didn’t realize it, 2 million years is a pretty short time period when it comes to evolution. In fact, cichlids are some of the most rapidly evolving vertebrates on earth.

What’s great about these 500+ species is their diversity. They have different habitat choices, mouth and tooth shapes, color patterns, and behaviors. They are really some amazing fish. For me, I am studying their color patterns. I’m interested in understanding what genes cause different pigmentation patterns, like red fins versus blue fins. I’m also interested in one day seeing if the same genes cause the same pigment patterns across cichlid species. For example, Species A and Species B both have red fins, but does the same gene cause the red fins in both species? The main goal of my dissertation is to try to find a gene that causes a particular color pattern. I’m attempting to find these genes by first making a hybrid  cross between two different cichlid species that have different color patterns. Since cichlids are so recently evolved, they can still mate with each other and produce viable offspring. I will go into more detail about this process tomorrow.

So, now the question everyone asks me, why does this matter? How does you studying pretty little fish make a difference to my life? My first response is that because science for the sake of science is important. Humans are naturally curious animals and we want to understand the world around us. But the answer that usually gets most  people on board is because understanding genetics is important. Humans are very concerned with finding the genes that cause a particular disease. However, trying to find these genes in humans is an extremely difficult process. So, to aid in this search, we have to rely on animal model systems, like mice, flies, fish, and frogs. You can produce hundreds of offspring at a time, which is very important when it comes to searching for a gene. Also, in animals, we can readily create mutants or use naturally existing mutants. For example, hubby is working with Mexican cavefish. These fish have no eyes and their retina degenerates. By studying the genes involved in retinal degeneration in these fish, we hope to learn more about the genes involved in retinal degeneration in humans. So, by working out the genetics and techniques in gene discoveries in animals, we hope to be able to relate this back to humans.

Alright, so tomorrow, a more in depth look at my research.


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