Wednesday, April 25, 2018

URSP Student Alexander Kourmadas Researches Steller’s Sea Cows

Right now, my research consists of several related procedures. I drill Steller’s sea cow bones to produce bone powder, from which DNA can be isolated. I carry out PCR using primers derived from research on extant sirenians, and use gel electrophoresis to determine whether any DNA was successfully isolated. When the PCR is successful, the resulting DNA sample is cleaned and sent out for sequencing. The most unexpected thing I’ve learned is that drilling the bones of Steller’s sea cow produces a unique, very strong, and very weird smell unlike the smell of bone dust from other organisms.

I have always been interested in natural history. When all of my friends went in and out of the “dinosaur phase” of childhood development, my interest didn’t dissipate. Instead, it progressively expanded to encompass more and more of the history of life. Until I finally got onto social media at the behest of my freshman class at GMU, I used the internet almost exclusively for Wikipedia articles and their bibliographies. My main interest both then and now was the intersection between modernity and deep time: organisms and ecosystems, like the Steller's sea cow, that represented how the world was long ago but lasted until very recently. My research plans for the future all tend to revolve around this principle of using recent history as a window into deep history.

Seven years ago, ancient DNA (aDNA) research took a huge leap in actually creating a fantastically enigmatic question - who were the people that shared Denisova cave with Neanderthals and our ancestors? They lived until relatively recently, interbred with both Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern humans, and produced complex art. They were identified from DNA from a molar and a pinky bone, though, so it is completely unknown what they looked like. This and similar discoveries by aDNA researchers have filled me with awe and inspiration. In carrying out this project, I hope to bring the same sense of wonder at the world to others that existing aDNA research brings me, but right now mainly to learn more about Steller’s sea cows and to learn the methods I need to do this sort of research in the future. In the rest of my career, I would like to use similar procedures to generate and utilize genetic data from diverse recently extinct organisms.