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Biology Students Shed New Light on Obscure Species

By Kaitie O'Hare

Clint Rice (left) and Andrew Frank (right) conduct research in the laboratory.

Clint Rice (left) and Andrew Frank (right) conduct research in the laboratory.

The words “Gammarus minus” might not mean much to the average person, but for seniors Andrew Frank and Clint Rice, Gammarus minus, or G. minus, is a phrase that rolls off their tongues without hesitation. Frank and Rice are studying population genetics and hybridization, respectively, in the obscure, aquatic species known as G. minus.

Partially resembling shrimp, G. minus are freshwater creatures that have small, curved bodies and many appendages. What’s interesting to Frank, Rice, and other biologists about the species is that the G. minus population found in West Virginian caves is different from the G. minus population found in other normal streams or surface waters. The ones found in caves appear to have longer legs, longer antennae, degenerate eyes, and an underdeveloped appearance and pigmentation.

“The understanding that we have is that when they move into the caves, they lose a lot of their surface characteristics,” says Rice. But the studies done on this specific population of G. minus aren’t as expansive as one might assume, and Frank and Rice are left answering their own questions about the species. Frank’s research uses genetics and DNA to understand the history, evolution, and distribution of the cave dwelling G. minus, while Rice’s research isolates and mixes specific populations to analyze the fertility, viability, and features of offspring produced by cave dwelling and surface dwelling G. minus.

Although the two are conducting different research, genetics and reproduction, both agree that the most challenging aspect of the work is simply sticking with it. “[Research] can fail a lot of the times, you can have bad results that end up throwing off everything,” says Frank. To closely examine the G. minus’ genetics, Frank extracts DNA and isolates the sections he is interested in by creating what is called a primer, a process that can yield a low success rate.

Rice, on the other hand, is entirely dependent upon the willpower of the G. minus. “We’re having a problem in which they’re not breeding, even on their own within their own population,” he says. “Since we find the males and females by using the actual breeding pairs, it’s been really hard to separate out the males and females. When none of them are breeding, you can’t do it that way.”

But after a semester’s worth of physically gathering the species from West Virginian caves and streams and starting their own research experiments, the two say they are in it for the long haul. “Once we get to the point where we actually have offspring, that’s when things are going to start getting interesting,” says Rice.

But Frank points out that the two could have a larger impact on biology beyond their conclusions about genetics and reproduction. “I’m hoping the scientific community takes away the idea that G. minus is an ideal model organism for studying cave adaptation and cave evolution,” he says. “Once we develop these microsatellite primers for G. minus, there’s a good chance we can use them on similar species in cave systems like the ones in West Virginia.”

Frank believes that G. minus has the potential to become a model organism, like fruit flies. These model organisms represent a specific way a process happens, and G. minus could represent the evolution of surface dwelling animals into cave dwelling animals.

With a few more months of research to go, Frank and Rice prepare to analyze data in hopes of making firm conclusions about the abnormal G. minus population in West Virginia. Once their capstones are completed and they have crossed the stage at graduation with honors, both Frank and Rice hope to become teachers in their field someday. Frank has been accepted to the Teach for America program, while Rice intends to continue his education at graduate school.