Marine lab uses CSI practices for conservation

They go into restaurants under cover of darkness and take napkins covered in pieces of tuna steak. They examine the samples by microscope to check species. And if they find it is not tuna steak, a crime scene investigation ensues.

Marine biologists are employing methods of forensic science for marine conservation, and some students studying at the Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, N.C. this summer will explore the field in a course titled "Marine CSI: Conservation Forensics in the Marine Environment."

"The idea for the course came out of the idea of conservation genetics," said Jens Carlsson, visiting assistant professor of marine science and conservation and a Mary Derrrickson McCurdy visiting scholar, who will lead the course's instruction. "We have 60 percent of the fishery stocks that are currently over fished, and we wanted to attract student attention to this."

Because fisheries and other marine businesses have damaged ocean ecosystems, marine conservation has become a central issue in national politics. Molecular biology-which will be included in the course's instruction-is one way marine conservationists determine how to protect marine species.

"With climate change and sea levels rising and all the other things we do to our coastal area, there is a new set of ocean research priorities put together by presidential committees," said Cindy Van Dover, director of the Marine Lab. "It is one of the top priorities in the country, and it is something that we are concerned with."

One student who signed up for the class said the exposure to a contentious political issue set the course apart.

"I'm not very interested in studying the biology or physics of sponges and plants-I could do that at Duke-but Marine CSI covers subjects that I have never thought of," freshman Alex Daniels wrote in an e-mail.

Carlsson will walk students through a curriculum that includes an introduction to marine conservation issues, field lab instruction in genetic tests and possibly a hands-on experiment working with Beaufort restaurants. Students will also learn forensic genetic techniques often used in the study of marine crime.

"What's exciting is that Jens Carlsson is a young new colleague here at the marine lab and has a lot of experience in the subject," Van Dover said. "He has designed a course that can go into the field... and give undergraduate students a real-world opportunity to practice marine biology."

Carlsson, a native of Sweden, joined the faculty because he would have the opportunity to work with undergraduates like Daniels.

"Environmental issues, which have been ignored for so long, will only come to the forefront of international policy in coming generations," Daniels said. "It's important that we work on ocean conservation now before it is too late."

If the Marine Lab receives permission from Beaufort restaurants, students will be able to look at DNA from samples in the field such as used napkins and determine if the DNA matches the fish.

Pending the restaurants' approval, of course.

"If we get negative feedback, we won't be able to do it. But I think if they understand we want to work with them-and not against them-it won't be a problem," he said.


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