A new wave of aquatic biology technology

Students in a lab view frogs in a plastic tub.Bolstered by a $1 million upgrade in equipment and facilities, WSU researchers in biology, neuroscience, agriculture, veterinary medicine, and related fields anticipate significant breakthroughs in aquatic phenomics research with wide-ranging applications for human and animal health and ecology.

“The new aquatic phenomics system (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. “It will contribute to innovative studies for understanding human health, the health of wildlife, and the generation of biodiversity in the natural world.”

Crespi is also principal investigator for a grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust that covered half the cost of renovations in Eastlick Hall, including installation of the APS technology. Matching WSU contributions came primarily from the College of Arts and Sciences, School of Biological Sciences and Office of Research.

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.

Students with Erica Crespi.
Erica Crespi, in white lab coat, shows a frog to a group of physiology students in the new aquatic phenomics research facility.

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.

A valuable research and training tool

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.”

Students looking at frogs in a plastic tub.
Crespi (left) and students look at frogs in the new lab.

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.

“The center will consist of flexible, high-throughput, automated equipment that records metabolic rate, behaviors and swimming kinematics of aquatic animals ranging in size from embryos through full-grown adults,” Wheeler said. “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.”

Top photo: Graduate and undergraduate students get hands-on research experience with a variety of aquatic animals.

By J. Adrian Aumen, College of Arts and Sciences