Smithsonian's National Zoo Opens New Genetics Lab

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s geneticists are ironing their lab coats and revving up their DNA sequencers for the celebration of the group’s new state-of-the-art genetics lab at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where researchers will look at life’s smallest building blocks in search of some of the world’s biggest conservation lessons.

“Successful conservation is achieved when many scientific disciplines intersect. The opening of this lab represents our commitment to that synergy,” said Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoo. “The scientific research we conduct in the lab will help conservationists around the world continue to establish best practices with endangered species both in the field and in captivity.”

Members of the media are invited to attend the opening event May 25 at 10 a.m. at the National Zoo. Following the DNA-ribbon-cutting ceremony, guests may tour the lab, where researchers will be available to talk about their various projects and demonstrate the lab’s technology. Speakers at the ceremony will include Eva Pell, the Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for Science; Steve Monfort, director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, which serves as the umbrella for the Smithsonian’s conservation science (including the genetics lab); and Rob Fleischer, head of the Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics.

Although the Zoo has studied genetics for more than 20 years, the new lab, which is located on the Zoo’s “Research Hill,” was built to accommodate rapidly developing technology and to facilitate additional collaboration with the Zoo’s pathologists, veterinarians, reproductive biologists, ecologists and behaviorists.

“The genetics lab works with other departments on nearly all of the Zoo’s conservation efforts,” Fleischer said. “This ranges from helping animal curators manage their animals by identifying gender or kinship, or diagnosing disease; to using genetics to monitor wildlife populations in nature, and assess genetic variation and inbreeding in small populations; to documenting disease prevalence and dynamics.”

The genetics research that the Zoo’s scientists conduct is diverse. Some of the work is focused on non-invasive techniques that do not require capturing an animal, but instead look at the animals’ feces (scat, dung), hair, feathers, saliva or shed skin. This approach is useful for estimating population sizes and densities of species that might otherwise be difficult to detect and count.

Other researchers look at ancient DNA taken from subfossil bones, mummies or museum specimens to determine genetic variation in a species even thousands of years ago and how the variation changed over time. This work also allows scientists to track the relationships of extinct and endangered animals and determine what diseases throughout history may have killed off certain species.

Some lab scientists use molecular genetics methods to diagnose and understand the dynamics of disease in natural populations to help figure out the best ways to fight it. This includes important research related to avian malaria and the amphibian chytrid fungus, which is wiping out frogs around the world. (A detailed list of researchers and their specific projects will be available at the event.)

“With this lab, we’ll be able to do things we never dreamed we’d be able to do,” said Jesus Maldonado, Zoo research geneticist. “For example, we’ll be able to do more genetic mapping of genetic disease traits in animals that are not the usual mouse or cow or chicken model. The enhanced ability to implement new methods is the key to answering a lot of questions we’ve looked forward to answering for years.”

The building was constructed with conservation in mind; it is a green building, and it has insulated metal panels to reduce energy use, recycled elements, an energy-efficient heat recovery unit, and a sensor-controlled lighting system, among other elements.