Marine biologists probe 'black box' mysteries of the sea

they tend to stay close to home?

"When you're managing marine ecosystems, it's important to know where organisms are going in the sea," Palumbi observed. "Are they going a mile or 10 miles or 100 miles in their lives? And what happens when they reproduce, because a lot of marine organisms don't reproduce by dropping big babies on the ground like mammals do. They, in fact, release very small eggs or very tiny larvae out into the water that drift in the ocean currents."

To find out how far marine larvae drift, Palumbi and his colleagues have been comparing different populations of Balanus glandula – a common barnacle found from Baja California to Alaska.

"It's a model species that's been studied intensely – the white rat of intertidal biology," Palumbi quipped. "Barnacles grow all over the rocks, they foul the hulls of boats, they grow all over piers and jetties. Although adults don't move, the larval form was thought to drift hundreds of miles in the ocean currents. But you have to test these things. You can't just assume they move a lot and then base all of your management on that assumption."

Human and barnacle genomes

How do you determine if barnacles growing along the coast of Oregon were actually born hundreds of miles away in California? One method is to look for subtle similarities in their DNA – a process that was both tedious and time-consuming until the Human Genome Project came along.

"The Human Genome Project led to refinements of genetic sequencing technology, so now we can look at the genetics of different barnacle populations more intensively and with higher resolution than ever before," Palumbi noted.

He and his colleagues recently conducted DNA analyses of barnacle colonies in Washington, Oregon and California. "We were able to extract enough DNA from even the microscopic larvae of barnacles to map genetic differences," he said. The results showed that larvae in all thr

Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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