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Scientist Spotlight: Katharine Coykendall

November 16, 2010
Katherine taking samples for her genetic rsearch.

Photo by R. Peyton Hale

Katharine works for the United States Geological Society, and refers herself as a “gene hunter.” She is participating in the Deep Sea Coral Expedition in order to collect genetic samples from marine organisms.  Katharine studied marine science at the University of South Carolina and received her Ph.D. in genetics from the University of California at Davis. She is interested in studying population genetics to determine how different populations are related to one another.

Katharine’s research objective is studying coral communities and invertebrates to determine any relationships they have to one another. In analyzing genetic material, genes are used as markers to determine relationships. For example, analyzing the DNA and RNA of invertebrates from the Gulf of Mexico will show if these organisms are a separate group than those from the Atlantic, or if they are related.

With tissues preserved as a result of this mission, Katharine will be able to increase her institution’s sample size to achieve more definitive results about the populations in areas being studied.

Field methods for preserving genetic samples have to be done meticulously. For DNA testing, tissues samples are stored in ethanol; for RNA testing a super-salty solution is used as a preservative. DNA and RNA are both types of nucleic acids, but the two substances have many differences. One major difference is the structure. DNA’s structure is called a double helix; it looks like a ladder that has been twisted into a spiral. RNA is single stranded, and looks like one side of the ladder is missing. RNA is also very fragile, and its design is such that it degrades quickly. This is due, in part, to RNA being a genetic response to environmental or developmental changes. After those changes occur, the gene expression levels change, and the RNA is broken down in the cell.

Many of the DNA and RNA tissue samples collected will be archived and used in laboratory analyses, becoming part of a DNA and RNA library for future research.

Interview with Katharine (mp3)

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