Marine biologist seeks genetic pearls in oyster DNA

By Peter Kent

OysterThe shell of an oyster is a drab, mundane thing. But lurking underneath that dull exterior is a complex DNA that enables the creature to adapt to stressful living conditions.

Research by Clemson marine biologist Andrew Mount shows that the oyster’s genes enable it to adapt and cope with environmental stresses, such as temperature and saltwater changes, air exposure and heavy metal pollution, and that shell formation is a far more complex process than previously thought.

"The genome sequencing and the research to understand how genes work represent a first and highly significant step in marine genomics," Mount said. "It identified the genetic mechanisms that give oysters the ability to respond to environmental stress and produce their protective shell."

Mount was part of a team of marine biologists, led by Goufan Zhang of the Institute of Oceanology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, that identified and catalogued the genes of the Pacific oyster – the first mollusk to have its genome decoded, sequenced and analyzed. Findings from that research recently were published in the journal Nature.

The research will have an impact on studies of the eastern oyster, as well, which is the focus of Mount's study at Clemson. Mount founded and leads the Okeanos Research Laboratory at Clemson, where studies about how shells form, grow and are nourished have led to new technologies. His work on shell formation has led him to see the mollusk’s cell as a way of gauging the threat of ocean acidification.

"The oceanographic geochemistry community has become alarmed over the past several years over increasing levels of ocean acidification," caused when the sea absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, he said. "Now that we have a better understanding of how these organisms actually calcify at an intracellular level, science is better equipped to investigate the threat that ocean acidification poses to the future of the world’s food security."

Oysters offer potential biotechnological pearls. The ability of oyster cells to produce one of the toughest bioceramic materials known, coupled with the knowledge of the genes involved, presents a portal for innovation in materials science.

"Biologically produced, cellular materials have a hierarchy of order that is unmatched by mankind," said Mount. "The production of useful and novel materials by harnessing the genome of mineralizing cells opens a bold new frontier for technological development."

Learn more about the Okeanos Research Laboratory: