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Brit Garner, host of SciShow Psych, talks about the research she's doing in conservation genetics/genomics, and Jessi from Animal Wonders shows off an African crested porcupine!

Hosted by: Hank Green
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(SciShow Intro)

Hank: Hello and welcome to SciShow Talk Show, the day on SciShow where we talk to interesting people about interesting stuff.  Today we are joined by Brit--I forgot, is it Garner?  

Brit: Yeah.

H: Not Gardner.

B: No D.

H: Okay, just making sure, who is the new host of SciShow Psychology, along with me.  Hey.  Thanks for doing that.

B: Yeah, it's awesome.

H: Yeah, it's really exciting.  It's going well.  How do you like it?  I know this isn't what we're supposed to be talking about.

B: Okay, well, between you and me and everyone, it's awesome.  I'm so happy to be involved with this.  My mom's PhD is in psychology and so even though I don't study it directly, it's so near and dear to my heart and I follow it just in terms of like pop science and what's going on, so.

H: Yeah, and I love like, getting the scripts in my inbox and being like, what fascinating thing am I gonna learn about in my brain today?  

B: Totally.

H: But you are also a scientist.

B: Yes.

H: And so we're gonna talk about the science that you do right now.

B: Awesome.

H: You're at the University right now, here in Missoula.

B: Yup.

H: And studying animals.  

B: Just animals.  A degree in animals.  It's gonna look good on the paper.

H: Yeah, yeah, PhD in Animals.

B: In Animals.  

H: But you, so you've studied a bunch of animals.  And well, I mean, it is, like, you're studying all kinds of weird stuff. Like vertebrates mostly, but like, that's broad.  

B: Well, some have said.

H: Yeah, so in a bunch of different ways, and in kind of in new ways, so kind of conservation stuff but with like, hard science.

B: Yeah.

H: Figuring out--it's a kind of a hard nut to crack, especially when you start thinking about it globally, how do we figure out what like, what these animals are doing without like, going in and tagging every single one.

B: Right.

H: And being like, how often do you die?  Who do you have sex with?  Where do you go?

B: We actually just ask them that on surveys.  It's great for data collection.  Hi, yes, what was your recent sexual partner?  And did you die yesterday, yes or no?  

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Biology is easy.  

H: It's super easy.  Super easy.  So, what animals are you studying right now?

B: Yeah--

H: There's two main things, right?

B: Yeah, two main things.  So, my background is in conservation genetics, now genomics 'cause we have the possibility of opening up to so much more data, and so that is focused on climate change and (?~2:25), and so trout and salmon out here in the Pacific Northwest.

H: And so you sort of, using genetics to find out things about the populations?

B: Yeah, exactly, and that's, I mean, that'd be pretty much a baseline definition of conservation genetics right?  So, I--my bachelor's was zoology and I just love animals, right?  So many of us, that's the cool thing about kids is that they're pretty much fearless when it comes to animals.  They learn to be scared of things, but I mean, there's just this attraction and for some of us, we never lose it.  I'm one of those people, and the thing is though, I'm crazy about math, crazy about science, and really fell in love with genetics early on and I didn't know that those two could go together and then I found out that they could.

H: Yeah.

B: And I jumped in headfirst and then wound up doing work in it, yeah, so it's using molecula--data from molecular analyses, so on genetics or genomics, so using a ton of genes, genome-wide, um, yeah, to uncover the story, pieces of the story, about populations, usually ones that are in danger or potentially going to be.

H: And what's kinda the story that you're helping figure out?

B: Yeah, so, right now, there's incredible research going on with landscape genomics and connectivity, and  we're actually combining it for the first time, or one of the first times, people right now, the idea of remotely sensed variables.  So we have all this amazing satellite capability and these sensors that are collecting data at a mind-blowing rate and resolution, but they're about things that are abiotic, so non-living.

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So what we're doing is combining those abiotic remotely sensed environmental variables--so, things like--variables, variables--things like precipitation, temperature, so ice melting, the, you know, plant composition in terms of actual coverage, you know, not species, and then combining that with genetic data or genomic data, depending on what it is.

H: What's the difference between those two things?  'Cause I don't even--I have no idea.

B: Oh my gosh, what an exciting question!  I was just baiting you hoping you'd ask.  Well, it's just such a caveat, because some of our work is genomics, and so it's like, conservation genetics (or genomics), so the genome is every piece of DNA in your body, right?

H: Yeah.

B: This makes up the whole thing.  A gene is a stretch of DNA that has a job.  That's, you know, a basic way of saying it, so when you do a genetic analysis, you're looking at a bunch of genes, so imagine we've got, you know, snapshot here, snapshot here.  Now, to do a genomic study, this is contentious because it's like, well, how many is genomics, right, and we're figuring that out.  We don't have these like, set ceilings, but you can think of it as not only way more markers, like complete genome-wide coverage, but being able to also see the interactions.  So potentially not just this location, but how does this one right next to it affect it, which effects this, which is here and here.  So when we say genomic, it's just the scale of the study and also the questions that you can answer, only some you can do with genome level vs. genetic level.  

H: And so is this, in some ways, like, in a way that we would in the past, like, stick an antenna into a fish and like, track it going around, you can sort of say like, well, this fish, like, this population of fish are all related and they have, and then over time you can see new genetic information coming into that population, which means that it's--that there's some intermixing with other populations or stuff like that?

B: Yeah, so you actually just listed two of some of the most like, basic and direct applications of conservation genetics or genomics, which is how closely related are they, okay?  

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So doing either pedigree reconstructions and very easily, too, I mean, imagine trying to figure that out without--

H: Yeah, without--

B: I mean, you don't, you have to sit there and record who screws whom and who gets pregnant.

H: Well, you can't even figure that out with people.  I mean, like, going back very many generations with humans, it's just guessing.

B: I mean, look, yeah, we have Maury Povitch.  I mean, we couldn't even do it on our own, right, so clearly, yeah, the critters, not so much.  Although I would pay to watch that for sure.  Yeah, so certainly who is related to whom and then that, it tells us about the inbreeding level in a population.  Now why does that matter?  Because genetic diversity is the key to moving forward, so what's awesome about studying biodiversity on the genetic level is that instead of saying, here's where we are, we're saying here's the evolutionary potential.  Here's is where this population can go and maybe how long it will take, and why it might be threatened by habitat fragmentation versus climate change, so what we have going on with the trout and salmon out here is they are incredibly, incredibly ectothermic and sensitive, so they rely on their environment for their temperature, like a lot of fish, but they have requirements that are very, very specific and they're incredibly sensitive, so--

H: Yeah, so the rivers get a little warm out here and then the trout populations just crash.

B: Yeah, the--yeah, so they are not resilient to these changes and the whole thing, you know, with climate "change", it's all about how fast.  It's all about rate and it's just what we all have to remind ourselves.  How quickly can these guys, you know, get with it through natural selection or through any form of mechanism, right?  Genetic drift, gene flow, all these things versus the actual changes that are actually occurring.  So, we kinda have an awesome opportunity for this canary in the coal mine, you know, climate change kind of flag with these salmon and trout populations out here.  

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