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The deep unknown
Visualizing the ocean’s mysteries
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Northeastern’s Ocean Genome Legacy maintains a collection of marine DNA and tissue samples that is unlike anything else in the world.
The repository was built from a desire to advance marine research that can help protect species that may otherwise go extinct.
Samples come from all over the globe.

The Ocean Genome Legacy accepts well-documented legally collected specimens from anyone. That open policy has guided the collection’s growth.

“We’re pretty open minded about the value of samples, because you never know where discovery is going to come from,” said Dan Distel, research professor at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center and executive director of the Ocean Genome Legacy Center.

Researchers and scientists have contributed samples to the collection from 83 different countries.
The center has distributed more than 7,500 samples to researchers in 15 countries, all to advance society’s understanding of aquatic life.
The collection has grown to include more than 30,000 DNA samples.
About 9,500 come from organisms that have not been identified to species.
Most samples in the repository were gathered from shallow ocean water. Why?

“It’s sort of the luck of the draw,” Distel said.

From zero to about 100 meters, researchers can use nets—and if necessary, scuba gear—to collect samples. Anything deeper requires a submarine.

The deeper we go, the less we know. Samples from the deep sea are often unidentified.

At depths beyond 100 meters, “You find very interesting organisms—weird things that we know very little about,” Distel said.

A research vessel called the Okeanos Explorer, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has contributed around 500 samples to the Ocean Genome Legacy. Many of them come from the deep ocean and haven’t been named beyond their higher taxon.

“Literally every time you go into the deep sea, you find species that haven’t been described before,” Distel said.

Most samples come from species in the animal kingdom. “Animals and plants are the large, conspicuous macro organisms, and that’s what we focus on,” Distel explained.
The collection houses and preserves specimens from more than 1,050 marine families
and over 3,600 identified species.
Samples of endangered species

Some specimens in the collection are from legally, ethically, humanely collected specimens of endangered species, typically subsamples of material collected for other research purposes. For example, with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Ocean Genome Legacy has built a reference DNA collection of black corals.

In truth, these corals are rarely black, instead coming in hues of white, red, green, yellow, and brown. They have historically been harvested to make jewelry. There is one legal black coral fishery in the world—and several illegal sites. Ocean Genome Legacy’s black coral DNA collection can help researchers distinguish between corals from the legal fishery and the illegal ones, to help enforce regulation to protect this vulnerable species.

“We need to know more about the ocean in order to realistically lesson man’s impact on the ocean,” said Distel. “That’s going to take knowledge, and knowledge comes from research.”

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