BITMaB Workshop Unites Researchers Across Disciplines to Move Science Forward

Press Release
BITMaB labwork

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Scientists at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (HRI) invited a diverse group of genomics researchers into their labs and out into the field for the second Benthic Invertebrate Taxonomy, Metagenomics, and Bioinformatics (BITMaB) workshop, which aims to bring together classically trained benthic taxonomists with scientists on the cutting edge of gene research.

The goal is to get the scientists working together, sharing skills, and contributing to a Gulf of Mexico DNA library that can eventually be used rapidly identify animals in marine samples through their genetic code. Sampling and studying biodiversity in an ecosystem is one of the most fundamental ways to examine an environment’s health, said HRI Endowed Chair for Ecosystems and Modeling Dr. Paul Montagna, but it can be a painstaking process for scientists.

“We’ve always used biodiversity as the most fundamental tool to create environmental assessments,” Montagna said. “The problem is that it’s labor intensive and tedious work. Since I started in this field nearly 45 years ago, we’ve been looking for ways to make this process easier. With the genetics revolution we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could take a thimble full of water, extract the DNA and determine what’s in the sample? Technology breakthroughs are making that possible.”

BITMaB presentation

HRI invited 65 researchers and students from around the world to convene at the institute for the BITMaB workshop, said Dr. Michael Reuscher, a postdoctoral research associate in Montagna’s Ecosystems and Modeling lab. In the morning, genomics researchers and students were invited to head into the field with HRI researchers to sample in the environment, or stay for bioinformatics seminars on using computers to better understand the biological data collected in the field. After returning from the field, they worked side by side with taxonomists to identify the benthic organisms collected in samples.

Like taking the temperature of a patient, scientists can study the number and type of organisms present in an ecosystem to better understand the condition of the environment, Montagna said. It’s not just about the amount of life present, but the diversity. Sometimes after a disturbance, more sensitive species will disappear from the environment and be replaced by life that’s more robust.

That includes major pollution events like 2010’s historic Gulf of Mexico oil spill off the Louisiana coast. Montagna and his research team conducted extensive benthic sampling on the seafloor near the site of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, taking sediment cores and examining what marine invertebrate life remained there after oil and dispersant entered the environment. Reductions in diversity allowed them to see these pollutants' effects on the ecosystem.

But conducting these environmental assessments can be an exhaustive and time-consuming process that requires days at sea collecting samples, hundreds of hours in front of a microscope picking apart and processing those samples, and many experts in taxonomy, the science of classifying organisms.

The hope is that someday metagenomics can speed up that process, enabling scientists to extract DNA from an environmental sample and quickly sort it to identify what’s there, possibly speeding up assessments from years to days.

The BITMaB workshops are part of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) funded research project “Genomic Responses to the Deepwater Horizon event and development of high-throughput biological assays for oil spills,” awarded to Principal Investigator Dr. Kelley Thomas, Hubbard Endowed Chair and Director of the University of New Hampshire’s Hubbard Center for Genome Studies, and Co-Principal Investigators Dr. Holly Bik, Assistant Professor of Nematology at the University of California, Riverside, and Montagna. Additional funding was provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the New Hampshire IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (NH-INBRE).

This is the second and final BITMaB workshop, and the group will move forward with preparing a report based on their findings. But Montagna said he hopes that other researchers will embrace the integrated problem-solving approach the group has pioneered through these weeklong sessions.

BITMaB group photo
BITMaB group photo, 2018