by Amy K. Lavender

To have a big impact, sometimes you have to look at something rather small ... like nutrients.

Specifically the nutrients used by sturgeon and sea slugs. Which nutrients are the best? Which nutrients make them thrive? Which nutrients enable certain sea slugs to photosynthesize?

Lessons in the LabThese are the things that Dr. Janet Genz likes to study. In fact, they are what she and a team of students are researching right now. Dr. Genz is leading two groups of students in two different studies. Both are based on nutrition, but each has its own real-world application.

In one study, Dr. Genz has partnered with the Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery in Warm Springs, Georgia, to help rebuild the lake sturgeon population in the Coosa and Tennessee Rivers.

“It’s important to rebuild those historic populations in the furthest southern reaches of their endemic territory, where their populations have been depressed for anthropogenic reasons,” Dr. Genz said.

Reasons can include dam construction and sport fishing.

“The adults require a gravelly stream bed to lay eggs on,” Dr. Genz said. “When you build a dam, you change the flow patterns of the river and how sediment is deposited. That can be detrimental to the fish population. Also, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were overfished because they can be really big and impressive looking. Of course, this was long before catch-and-release was a promoted practice, so those two things coupled with the fact that these fish are really long-lived causes difficulty for them since the fish don’t reach spawning age until the female is about 15 years old.”

Dr. Genz’s research is helping the hatchery rebuild these populations by focusing on the sturgeon’s physiology through nutrition. Once the sturgeon larvae are hatched and reared, at three different temperatures, Dr. Genz and her team evaluate them as they develop to determine which group is showing the most progress.

“We are trying to trace their nutritional profile over the course of that early life stage development because anything you can do to improve the rearing conditions will help the hatchery stock out not only the highest quantity, but also the highest quality juvenile fish that have the highest probability of survival.”

Dr. Genz’s other research focuses on lettuce sea slugs, which have become known as “solar-powered” sea slugs among those who are studying them. Of course, they aren’t actually solar powered, but these slugs’ relationship to their food has caused some buzz in the scientific community.

“The interesting thing about these slugs,” Dr. Genz said, “and the reason people have been studying them, is that they are capable of taking up the chloroplasts from their algal nutrition source, and rather than digesting them, they incorporate them into their intestinal diverticula and they retain functionality. So they take up chloroplasts and are quasi-photosynthetic, and they can live for months without eating.”

According to Dr. Genz, there are about four research groups working with these sea slugs, mostly on gene transfer. However, Dr. Genz and her team are looking at this phenomenon and focusing on the physical organelle transfer.

“I want to know why is it – from a nutritional perspective – that when they take up the cytoplasm of the organelle species they can somehow distinguish between the chloroplasts and everything else? [...] If you can figure out how the symbiosis is being set up, you could in theory apply it to other animals with commercial interests.”

This being Dr. Genz’s first faculty position, she was excited to get started on her own research and impart that excitement to the next generation of scientists.

“I hope (my passion for my work is infectious). It’s a new area of research for me, so we’re just trying out a whole bunch of things and seeing where we have success and where the interesting things are.”

By “we,” she means her team of researchers made up of undergraduate students. UWG sees undergraduate research as an essential part of a quality education and scholarly achievement. It’s a collaboration Dr. Genz said she is excited to take part in.

“It’s nice because I can give my students a lot of leeway,” she said, “and they can run with things as they learn more or discover something new. That’s fun for them. They have a lot more ownership of their project, and they’re excited to be in the lab. And that’s always important.”

The opportunity to conduct research on this level while still an undergraduate is not lost on Olivia Howard, one of four students helping Dr. Genz in the lab.

“What I enjoy most about working in the lab is the opportunity to learn and the ability to contribute to a project bigger than myself,” said Olivia. “I am very excited and honored to have the opportunity to do research here. Not many undergraduates get that opportunity, but it was something that I really wanted to get involved in, and Dr. Genz gave me that chance.”

Olivia will join her fellow students and Dr. Genz this spring at conferences, where they will have the opportunity to present their work to their peers.

Posted on June 20, 2016