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Marine Science

Researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science are involved in a unique public-private collaboration that could transform the way scientists look at the seafloor.Chartered in 1940, the School of Marine Science/Virginia Institute of Marine Science (SMS/VIMS) is the third largest marine research and education center in the country. The school and the institute have a mandate from the Commonwealth that gives them a unique place in higher education as proactive research labs and scientific advisors on marine issues in Virginia. The School awards both Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees. Graduate studies are offered in five areas: Biological Sciences, Environmental Sciences, Fisheries Science, Physical Sciences, and Resource Management and Policy. Students participate in graduate studies at an active, year-round research facility with approximately 300 scientists, support technicians and staff.

Research at VIMS extends from inland watersheds to the open ocean with a primary emphasis on coastal and estuarine science. VIMS research is based in five academic departments and several major research units, including:

Aquaculture Genetics and Breeding Technology Center

In 1997, with support from the Commonwealth, VIMS established the Aquaculture Genetics and Breeding Technology Center to foster the development of breeding technologies to promote increased yields, improve disease resistance and to make available genetically-improved broodstocks for the aquaculture industry. The Center will conduct state-of-the-art research on new genetic and breeding technologies that will be applicable to all species. The initial emphasis will be in the field of genomics - the identification of the location of specific genes in the genome, for example those that confer disease resistance. Genomics is revolutionizing agricultural crop improvement and will be used to obtain desirable characteristics such as accelerated growth, disease resistance and adaptation to hatchery manipulation. Domestication is accomplished through genetic breeding and it has been the most important contributing factor for the sustainable growth in agriculture.

The mission of the Aquaculture Genetics and Breeding Technology Center (ABC), our molecular genetics group, is to develop, adopt, and maintain an array of innovative and applied technologies for genetics and breeding of aquaculture species in service to industry and science of the state and region. ABC's activities include genotype investigations including analysis of DNA and its organization on chromosomes. For example, genes are arrayed on chromosomes in a linear fashion. Geneticists can construct road maps locating these genes and in turn, this provides information on the overall organization of related groups of genes. ABC, headed by Dr. Kim Reece, is endeavoring to produce a map of the American oyster, Crassostrea virginica. A "medium density" genetic map of the oyster genome is one of ABC's principal goals for the next several years.

Fisheries Genetics Program

Recent advances in biotechnology have spawned exciting new techniques that can be applied to long-standing problems in fisheries science. The Fisheries Genetics Program bridges the gap between molecular biology and fisheries science, using cutting-edge molecular techniques to investigate a wide variety of fisheries-related subjects. Foremost among these are studies of the population genetic structure or stock composition of commercially and/or recreationally important fisheries. The program also uses molecular techniques to determine the evolutionary histories (phylogenies) of many marine organisms, and to identify eggs, larvae, and tissues of closely related species.

The program has been studying variations in the genetic relatedness of marine organisms at the DNA level. Different regions of DNA evolve at varying rates, and depending on the objectives of the study, particular regions are selected for analysis. "For phylogenic studies of distantly related organisms, we typically study regions of DNA that evolve very slowly, providing insight into speciation events that may have occurred many millions of years ago. On the other hand, very rapidly evolving regions of DNA are most informative for studies of population structure within a species. By looking at highly variable regions of DNA, we can even study differences between individuals," says Dr. John E. Graves, chair of the Fisheries Science department.

A major contribution of the Fisheries Genetics program has been a significant increase in our understanding of the stock structure of a variety of marine organisms. Effective management and conservation of a fishery require a basic knowledge of a species population genetic (stock) structure. Dr. Stan Allen and his associates are examining documentation and genetic analysis of reversion in triploid Pacific oysters, Crassostrea gigas, and their use for population control, comparison of disease resistant stocks of C. virginica across environments in the mid-Atlantic region (CROSBreed), and commercialization of tetraploid oysters and development of tetraploid strains.

Immune Response of Aquatic Species

Dr. Stephen L. Kaattari and his associates are examining the immune response of cultured aquatic species and developing vaccines and diagnostics for aquatic animal diseases. Generally high fish lesion prevalences, several fish kills, and adverse human health effects in watermen have been attributed to Pfiesteria piscicida and have focused intense regional concern on this issue. In response to concerns about an unusual number of fish with lesions reported in Chesapeake Bay, especially the Pocomoke River, a Virginia Pfiesteria Task Force was formed. The task force includes members of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and research scientists from Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and Old Dominion University (ODU). The task force developed an information network that enabled members to respond quickly and efficiently to events. The fish species most commonly affected was the menhaden. In some coastal states, incidence of menhaden lesions is now routinely monitored and used as a "bioindicator" of local pfiesteria activity. In at least two states, Maryland and Virginia, fish lesions are used to help guide pfiesteria-related public health action levels including mandatory state closures of water bodies and human health advisories.