What’s Inside a DNA Bank? A Tour of the Ocean Genome Legacy Center

By Charlotte Seid, Biorepository Manager at OGL

You may have visited a museum or an aquarium, but how about a DNA repository? The MSC’s Ocean Genome Legacy Center is home to over 23,000 DNA samples from many of the ocean’s strangest, rarest, and most threatened creatures.

Why do we collect DNA? The genetic material of life holds valuable information about each species’ unique adaptations, its evolutionary history, and the ways it could inspire biotechnology and medicine. The ocean is a vast and amazing source of genetic information, much of it still unexplored! OGL’s mission is to study and protect the biodiversity of the sea, and we make our samples available to researchers around the world.

Here’s a quick virtual tour where you can see a day in the life of OGL!

Welcome to OGL at the MSC!
Step right in!

OGL’s samples come from scientific collaborators all over the world. DNA looks like a clear liquid, and we can extract it from bits of skin, fin, and other tissues. We only need a pea-sized piece of tissue to get lots of valuable DNA, so we are happy to make use of “leftovers” from marine research projects (especially from our friends at the MSC!). We also get great material from collaborators such as fisheries observers, marine mammal stranding response teams, and aquatic veterinarians. Some of our most recently added species include sponges from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (courtesy of Mark Patterson’s lab), icefish from Antarctica (courtesy of Bill Detrich’s lab), and the funny-looking but harmless Australian elephant shark (courtesy of Byrappa Venkatesh at A*STAR, Singapore).

An OGL sample kit.
We give each collaborator a customized kit, including these barcoded sample tubes. They contain OGL’s special fixative to keep the DNA in good condition.

In the lab, we extract DNA by gently dissolving the sample, separating the DNA from proteins and debris, and washing the DNA to get it as pure as possible. We then do several quality control steps to check the purity, amount, and approximate size of the DNA. If we have lots of samples to extract at once, we’ve got robots to help out! One of our automated DNA extractors can run 12 samples at a time, and another does batches of 96.

Extracting DNA
We can extract DNA by hand, with the help of a small centrifuge (left), or use one of our friendly resident robots (the big cube on the right) to process multiple samples at once.

Once we have high-quality DNA, we archive it in our ultra-cold -80 °C freezers to keep it stable for many years. We keep tissue samples even colder, since they’re more fragile than purified DNA. Tissues are frozen at -180 °C using liquid nitrogen.

Our ultra-cold freezers
Our samples are housed in ultra-cold freezers in our biorepository room. The upright freezers (right) are for DNA at -80 °C, and the silver canister (front left) uses tanks of liquid nitrogen (back) to keep our precious tissue samples at -180 °C.

When possible, we’ll also save whole specimens so researchers can study the organism in detail and verify that it was identified correctly. These specimens, called “vouchers,” also double as educational displays.

A crab specimen from Tonga
This deep-sea crab specimen, preserved in ethanol, came from the Lau Basin of Tonga, in the South Pacific.

What have we been up to this week?

Dave Stein, the OGL Technician, has been testing some new equipment. The little device on the bench is a homogenizer, which jiggles samples at high speed to break up tough material so we can extract DNA.

Dave with our new homogenizer
Dave is trying out our new mini-homogenizer, the “BeadBug.” (Doesn’t it look like a tiny white VW Bug?)

Remember the soft-shell blue lobster? The MSC Outreach staff kindly donated the molted shell to OGL. I’ve been preserving the molt as an educational tool to illustrate how lobsters grow and how they’re affected by shell disease.

Charlotte preserving a lobster molt
That’s not melted butter going onto this lobster! I’m preserving the blue lobster’s molted shell using a low-tech but effective trick: heavy-duty glue.

We hope you enjoyed the tour! Feel free to leave us questions in the comments section.

Stay tuned here, on Twitter, on Facebook, and on our Newsletter to learn about our newest samples and collaborations!

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One thought on “What’s Inside a DNA Bank? A Tour of the Ocean Genome Legacy Center

  1. Hello: I read about your company in Peter Neill’s book, The Once and Future Ocean. I had a career in the sea urchin industry here in Maine and exported live urchins to Japan for many years. I also provided specimens for research. I am working on a new
    venture and wondered if I would qualify as a researcher and be able to get genetic info for urchin and other species. If not, I could probably find a researcher here in Maine
    to partner with who would qualify. How much do you charge for this sort of service?

    Are there IP issues involved?

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