Ecology scientist to confirm we won’t be first to go

Regan Campbell/ Sun Star Contributor 

April 15, 2014

There are men, according to Michael Caine in “The Dark Knight,” who only want to watch the world burn. There are others, though, who would prefer that it would chill the hell out just a bit, because we might be in a lot of trouble.

Kris Hundertmark is one such person. As an Associate Professor of Wildlife Ecology in his ninth year of research at UAF, Hundertmark has been following a growing problem in wildlife genetics research. In the upcoming installment of the UAF Science Seminar Series, Hundertmark will present some of his research into North American caribou and seal populations above the Arctic Circle and the apparent diminishing of genetic variation in these populations brought on by climate change. Appearing April 18 at 3 p.m. in Murie 104, the seminar is titled “Genetics, genomics, and metagenomics in wildlife ecology” and will generally focus on the out-of-sync relationship between quickening climate change and the populations of large northern mammals and their likely inability to express suitable genetic variance to adapt in time. To say that certain animals are endangered is one thing, but to pointedly state that they are threatened down to the very proteins of their genetic code is another.

Hundertmark began his career in 1982 with Alaska’s Department of Fish & Game as a research biologist with an emphasis on moose. Craving some moose-less adventure, he quit after 20 years and worked for the Zoological society in Saudi Arabia looking into endangered gazelle species in the middle of the Iraq War. After two and a half years, he returned to Alaska and took a research position at UAF.

“A scientist is naked without his PowerPoint presentation,” Hundertmark said, when asked to describe the format of the event. The presentation will focus on his efforts in collaboration with various scientists and graduate students to find, among many other things, the genetic variance between herds of caribou spread across the North American continent. In an effort to anticipate the fate of these herds, Hundertmark and his colleagues have begun a project aimed at decoding the caribou genome. “They show tremendous variability,” Hundertmark explained, “They are adapted to a huge array of climates.” Because their range extends from the polar tundra to the boreal forests and the temperate wilderness of southeast Canada, the caribou genome had to teach itself to “exist along that temperature gradient. There’s got to be a lot of genetic variation between these herds.”

“I’m interested in finding out which genes are important for caribou at these different locations, and how variable they are,” Hundertmark saidys. Because here in Alaska we have a front-row seat to our planet’s climate change, he explained they’re finding that the most genetically diverse communities in the past have resulted in the most versatile and successful caribou communities. Now it’s just a matter of finding the genes that are most functional and crucial in building such communities, and how long they took to express around the end of the last ice age.

But what are “metagenomics”? “It’s basically taking a sample that is a mixture of different types of DNA. In my case, it was seal feces.”
It’s a pretty word for a reasonably unattractive area of sample collection—straight from the natural sources to find out such things as what animals in a biome are eating. “Metagenomics just means that you’re taking this sample which is a mixture of all kinds of DNA and you’re submitting it to what’s called ‘next-generation DNA sequencing.’ It tells you all of the different types of DNA in that sample. So it’s giving us the DNA signature of all the diet items of those seals.”

“To adapt, you need to be diverse,” Hundertmark summarized.

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