Sharks, rays and other elasmobranchs are some of the most remarkable animals on the planet. They are well known for their high-performance sensory systems that make many of them into daunting predators. But these animals also have robust immune systems, as well as highly efficient wound-healing capabilities that are as yet unexplained. For the past year now, the Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Research Center (SOSF Shark Research Center) in Florida has been studying shark DNA at a large scale in search of the genes responsible for such novel traits. Already we are finding hints of unique properties that reveal surprises about these animals’ evolutionary histories and may one day even point the way to new medical advances.
A key question the SOSF Shark Research Center focuses on is: what makes a shark – a shark? In other words, how are sharks different from other vertebrates that don’t share their unusual traits? We’re investigating these evolutionary marvels at the most fundamental level possible – by studying their entire genetic blueprints, or genomes. This includes identifying all their genes.
A genome is the collection of all the DNA, including all the genes, in an organism’s chromosomes. All the information that determines what makes an organism function, including how it behaves physiologically and physically, is hidden in the genome and the genes within it. In other words, a genome is a treasure trove of biological information that underpins the very essence of organisms and species. And by comparing a genome from one species to those of other species, we gain insights into that species’ evolutionary origin and subsequent developmental pathways.
In so-called animal research ‘model species’, such as mice, zebra fish, fruit flies and nematodes, studies of genomes and gene expression are surging ahead at full speed and have already led to deep insights into how animals work at their most fundamental level. The small size of these animals and the ease of breeding them and keeping them in the lab have made them the main focus for basic and biomedical research. Today their entire DNA sequences and all their genes have been determined, opening up numerous research options. This includes comparisons that aid in the understanding of human genes, many of which have counterparts in these model species. The ultimate goal is, of course, to use these insights to find better ways to detect and treat the many genetically based diseases that plague humankind.
Genome-scale investigation of sharks and rays is work that is in its infancy, if not still at its birth. At the SOSF Shark Research Center, we’ve taken on this research challenge.
The SOSF Shark Research Centre (SOSF-SRC) is located in Florida and was established at Nova Southeastern University in 2009 by directive of the founder of the Save Our Seas Foundation.
The centre focuses mainly on scientific research aimed at increasing knowledge to aid the conservation, management and understanding of sharks and rays worldwide.
A hallmark of the SOSF-SRC is that it specialises in taking integrative, multi-disciplinary approaches to research and conservation, which include combining high-tech genetics, genomics and field work to illuminate holistically aspects of shark and ray science that would be difficult to decipher using single-discipline approaches alone.
The SOSF-SRC also serves as an academic unit within Nova Southeastern University and as such its function includes the training of students from around the world in marine research and conservation. Although advanced scientific research is the main focus of the SOSF-SRC, our staff also undertake educational and outreach activities involving primary (US middle) and secondary (US high) school students.