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Expanded aquatic biology technology will enhance health-related research

A student wearing a purple glove reaches up to a tank with frogs in it, while other researchers look on.
Graduate and undergraduate students get hands-on research experience with a variety of aquatic animals.

Washington State University scientists from a range of fields expect that recently completed $1 million upgrades in aquatic biology equipment and facilities on the Pullman campus will help them make significant advances in health-related research.

A grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust covered half the cost of renovations in Eastlick Hall, including the installation of aquatic phenomics system (APS) technology; matching WSU contributions came primarily from the College of Arts and Sciences, School of Biological Sciences, and Office of Research.

“The new APS technology will enable rigorous tests of physiological, ecological and evolutionary hypotheses with greatly enhanced realism and replication,” said Erica Crespi, associate professor of biology and principal investigator for the Murdock grant. “It will contribute to innovative studies for understanding human health, the health of wildlife and the generation of biodiversity in the natural world.”

APS data, combined with genomic, cellular and physiological data, will enable WSU aquatics researchers to characterize novel gene functions, expedite drug discovery and predict how a variety of species will respond to natural and human-induced environmental change.

Aquatic and semi-terrestrial organisms have long been biomedical models of human health and disease. Studies of zebrafish and xenopus frogs, for example, provide insights about embryonic and early developmental processes. How the two animals are able to regenerate appendages is, as yet, only minimally understood.

“WSU scientists will now be able to investigate biological systems across scales and in environmental conditions that aquatic or semi-aquatic animals experience almost anywhere on Earth, past, present, or future,” Crespi said.

New and ongoing studies that will utilize the APS capabilities include examinations of environmental impacts on vision and hearing loss; how stormwater run-off affects salmon, trout, and other fishes; and how environmental change promotes epidemics in amphibian populations.

Other research seeks to understand the fundamental mechanisms regulating growth of skeletal muscle in fish to learn more about muscle growth in a wider array of vertebrates, including humans. The work has additional implications for addressing global food supply.

More than 100 different experiments, ranging in duration from hours to months, are expected to use the system tools and software each year.

The APS will also be an important research tool used by graduate and undergraduate students across the WSU system, said Allison Coffin, a neuroscientist in the College of Veterinary Medicine and a co-principal investigator on the grant. “It will enable students to gain experience in experimental design, data collection, and management and analysis of large datasets as well as experience interacting with interdisciplinary teams, which are critical skills in today’s research environment.”

Installation of the APS is a major step toward establishing an interdisciplinary Aquatic Phenomics Research Center at WSU and further expands the comprehensive suite of tools available to faculty and student researchers, said Paul Wheeler, a fish biologist, and APS installation and training coordinator. Already the upgrade makes WSU’s capabilities unique.

“To our knowledge, there is no other aquatics phenomics system in the Pacific Northwest with the capacity to study such a wide variety of traits, organisms, and environmental contexts,” he said.  

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