OGDEN, Utah – New findings about the DNA of Great Salt Lake brine flies are taking a Weber State University student to one of the most important molecular genetics research conferences in the world.
Amanda Truong, a junior studying zoology, will travel to Kyoto, Japan, July 26-30 for the annual meeting of the Society for Molecular Biology & Evolution. Nominated by her research advisor, zoology professor Jonathan Clark, Truong was one of only 10 undergraduate students selected by the society from universities around the world for the coveted conference scholarships.
Truong will present a poster with findings gleaned from hundreds of hours of study during the past three years, collecting brine flies from the lake and examining them in the DNA Lab at WSU.
She and Clark are investigating how brine flies might have adapted to survive in the harsh environment of the Great Salt Lake with its high salt concentrations. The brine flies carry bacteria known as Wolbachia that have been shown in previous studies to affect their hosts positively to enhance survival. Although Wolbachia are common in many insects, the bacteria have not been reported in brine flies. The bacteria are unusual in that they do not just live in the digestive track of the brine flies; instead, they exist inside the cells and are passed along to offspring.
“In order to study DNA, I have to make multiple copies of the genes – billions and billions of copies – just so I can see it,” Truong said. “Because DNA is microscopic, I can’t see the progression until the very end of the process. Even though I have to wait several hours, I like the suspense; it’s kind of like a surprise at the end.”
The flies and their survival are critical to the ecology of the Great Salt Lake, keeping it clear of growth such as algae that would overtake the lake and deplete it of oxygen. Oxygen depletion could kill the lake’s other primary inhabitants, the brine shrimp population. The flies also provide significant sustenance for migratory birds that feed at the lake. “The flies are a critical component in sustaining the health of the lake,” Clark said, “Anything we can learn about how they are able to survive there is useful. The research has both biological and economic importance.”
The Division of Natural Resources, the state agency that oversees the lake, estimates the flies have a positive economic impact of $100 million per year, the approximate price to build and operate a water treatment facility that could perform the same work the flies are currently doing.
Truong will present her findings to the gathering of 1,000 molecular genetics researchers from around the world. Although she said she’s a little nervous, she has presented at other conferences and each time has had more information to offer while drawing additional ideas for her own future study. Truong eventually plans to apply for medical school. When she began her undergraduate education, she said she had no idea how far a tiny fly would carry her.
“I have a totally different perspective from my childhood,” said Truong moved to Ogden at age 10. “We used to visit the lake, and when I looked at the water, I asked ‘Why are there so many flies? They are annoying.’ Now I look at the flies and think ‘They are my research; they have an important purpose.’ I am excited to share what I have learned about them.”
The meeting of the Society of Molecular Biology and Evolution is the world’s leading conference on evolutionary biology, the area of genetics that studies how organisms diversify through time and new organisms arise.
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