Learning From Tiny Molecules

Sep 6, 2016 By Amanda Clark
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To answer the questions that interest me, I start my investigation at the tiniest level – the molecule.

Molecular ecology answers questions about connections between living things by looking at tiny molecules within a cell. Every living thing is made of cells, and some living things are just one cell – like bacteria. Your body is made up of different cell types like skin cells that work as an outer layer of protection, and muscles cells that help you breathe and move.

The cells in your body work together to make different tissues and organs. All of these amazing cells have jobs and they know what to do because they have instructions. These instructions come from DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). DNA is like computer code, and just like computer code tells your computer and all of the programs on your computer how to work, DNA tells your cells and body how to work.

Molecular ecologists look at living things on the level of their DNA to find ways they are the same and different. DNA also has the instructions to make proteins. Proteins help move nutrients and messages to and from different parts of the body to make cell work go faster, and are a part of the tissues and organs in our body.

Learning From Molecules

As a researcher in molecular ecology, I use and follow molecules like DNA and protein through the body to find out how they work and what jobs they do. Then I use the molecular information to answer bigger, ecological questions. This research requires getting tissue samples from two or more animals, which often uses field ecology skills. The next step is extracting or taking out DNA and protein from the samples, which require chemistry and laboratory skills. The final step is looking at how alike and/or different the DNA and protein codes of the animals are using computer science skills.

When scientists discover areas of the DNA code that are similar or different between animal groups they now have information about how those groups are related.  They also gain information on how those organisms have developed or changed over time, or evolved. The mystery I hope to help solve is about body size evolution on islands. There are cases of animal species starting new populations on isolated islands and, over time, they become bigger or smaller than the parent population they came from.

Ecologists have been looking at this incredible event since the 1960’s, and many have come up with strong hypotheses for why these animals get larger or smaller in isolation (changes in food sources, changes in predators, etc.). However, the question of how this is happening has not been answered just yet. I am interesting in finding out more about those areas in the DNA that have the instructions and information for cell and body growth.