AgCenter facility is on a ‘relentless hunt’ for better ways to preserve genetic resources

(06/04/24) BATON ROUGE, La. — Inside a complex of nondescript buildings on the outskirts of LSU’s campus, tanks housing a dozen species of fish, frogs, salamanders, shrimp and other forms of aquatic life share space with liquid nitrogen tanks, 3D printers and a digital media studio.

What do all of these things have in common? They each play crucial roles in the LSU AgCenter Aquatic Germplasm and Genetic Resources Center, a one-of-a-kind facility providing global leadership in the quest to protect aquatic species.

The center specializes in research on cryogenically preserving — or frozen using liquid nitrogen — sperm and embryos of fish, amphibians, mollusks and invertebrates as well as samples of algae. Researchers have turned it into a hub of educational outreach and technological development aimed at helping fellow scientists around the world start their own germplasm repositories.

While conservation of endangered species is one goal of preserving these materials, it has a wealth of other benefits, such as helping scientists make advances in biomedical research and aiding the aquaculture industry.

“If you look at catfish or salmon or oysters, they’re huge industries,” said Terry Tiersch, director of the center. “But they have no comprehensive protection for genetic resources. Our goal is to support development for not just a single company or a business but multiple overlapping industries, and we’d like to see it centered in Louisiana.”

Since the center was founded in 2014, Tiersch and his colleagues have formed partnerships spanning the globe. They’ve made extensive use of 3D printing technologies to craft innovative tools for processing and storing genetic materials. They also have created a wide variety of open-source hardware and educational videos and manuals.

They were recently awarded a $2.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health Office of Research Infrastructure Programs to develop capabilities for several national stock and research centers for aquatic biomedical model species.

“Whether it's a mutation that will cure cancer, whether it's a disease treatment, whether it makes a fish grow faster to go to market or whether it's an algae that makes more pigment than another one, the whole concept is how do you preserve those genetic resources — because we do not know their value tomorrow,” Tiersch said. “And we don't know the problems of tomorrow.”

The dairy cattle-aquaculture connection

The center is in the former LSU Dairy Improvement Center, which was built in 1947 adjacent to a campus dairy farm. While there are no longer cattle roaming outside the Gourrier Avenue facility, associate director Yue Liu sees the Aquatic Germplasm and Genetic Resources Center as carrying on a legacy that began with its dairy-focused predecessor.

“They used bull sperm as a way to capture genetics to make cows that make better milk,” Liu said. “In the old days, you had to haul the bull across town or even the country to get cows pregnant to make better calves. When this place was built, it was a new industry to sell that sperm of those star bulls. And it became a multibillion-dollar, global business. So it’s the same concept, but we work with aquatic animals.”

Genetics can influence how fast animals grow, their susceptibility to disease and many other attributes that ultimately affect producers’ profits — and their ability to stay in business in the face of increasing global competition and climate threats.

“In agriculture, to intensify, to get more production per unit area or unit investment, typically it's nutrition that comes first,” Tiersch explained. “Just feed them better and they’ll grow better. But once you get rid of those problems, what's the last thing left that you can improve? Genetics. That's why the modern livestock industry is driven by genetics. There's no new way to grow cattle. But the genetics changes all the time.”

Many uses for genetic materials

Aquatic animals’ genetics — including genetic mutations — can shed light on human health issues. Axolotls, a type of critically endangered amphibian that is kept at the center, serve as a model for studying regeneration, a concept that is important in research on cancer and the aging process. Zebrafish, which share a large portion of genetics with humans, are prized for biomedical research as well.

These creatures take up less room than monkeys, rats and other animals that historically have been used in research programs. Storing their sperm through cryopreservation saves even more space; researchers can simply use it to make new animals when needed.

“A lot of people are moving to use aquatic animals in medicine discovery, to study how diseases are caused and to understand human evolution, basic physiology, biology,” Liu said.

In addition to studying ways to preserve aquatic species, scientists also are looking at storing algae, a critical aquatic food source. The center received a grant from the LSU Provost’s Fund last year to investigate the issue.

“There's always some interaction between species, right?” Tiersch said. “Sometimes you may be preserving a species, but if you're not preserving what that species needs, then it doesn't matter.”

There are about 30,000 kinds of algae in the world, and fewer than 3,000 are protected, according to Teresa Gutierrez-Wing, assistant director at the center. She said one of her favorite parts of her work is problem solving — and finding out the best methods for saving algae has presented plenty of interesting challenges.

“You can have algae that has very persistent cell walls or you can have algae that cannot freeze well because it breaks down,” Gutierrez-Wing said. “You have many different groups of algae. We’re not going to decide how to process a sample of each one because we will never finish. So what are the characteristics that interfere with the cryopreservation of algae in general?”

Innovative culture

Visitors to the center will find 3D printers and objects produced with the machines at almost every turn. There’s even a room labeled “3D printer farm” filled with computers, several types of printers and various 3D-printed contraptions.

The center has about 100 3D printers, which build items by layering plastic or other materials according to a design made using a computer program.

Student workers are encouraged to print just about any and everything they want to practice, and researchers have used the printers to develop tools for standardizing the processing of samples, which is key to ensuring their quality. They’ve shared their files with people around the world so they too can 3D print things like a positioning device to hold axolotls in place during sperm collection and an artificial insemination tool for fish.

“It will allow us to get 1,000 people involved instead of just one group,” Tiersch said. “It solves problems, and we can make prototypes really fast. We don't have to build it in chunks or wait for a company to make it. You can just run with your ideas.”

“It became part of who we are,” he added. “It’s part of the culture here.”

Another crucial aspect of the center’s culture is its interdisciplinary approach. The team collaborates with everyone from engineers and mathematicians to sociologists, artists and designers.

“You get to a point where you're like a good jazz group and you can improvise and play off each other,” Tiersch said. “You make something up off the theme, but you don't know what the other one is going to play, but you make it work. You know, that takes a lot of practice and trust and knowledge. And that's what interdisciplinary means.”

Outreach efforts expand

Ten years after its inception, the center continues to grow, with elements of the former dairy facility still in the process of being transformed into high-tech, modern scientific research and development spaces. An old livestock arena was recently outfitted with large tanks that will soon be filled with water and fish.

Faculty also have been thinking more and more about outreach. Educating people in the industry and collaborating with research partners have long been emphasized at the center. But now, a greater focus is being placed on reaching young audiences.

“Our repository system is to safeguard materials for decades or centuries,” Gutierrez-Wing said. “If we want to succeed, there has to be somebody that knows how to do it. We have to recruit people in this area very early.”

The center participates in youth educational events at LSU like Ocean Commotion and AgMagic. And it now regularly welcomes school field trip groups. Children can even have their pictures taken in a face cutout board painted with a character called Miguel the Axolotl, and 3D-printed fish inscribed with “AGGRC” are handed out as souvenirs.

Recruiting future generations of aquaculture professionals and researchers is important in a time of growing climate uncertainty, Liu said.

“The speed of losing genetics of aquatic species is getting faster and faster,” he said. “The fish or oysters we're eating today are different from what we ate 20 years ago. They all look like fish or oysters, but a lot of genetics are being lost. And if nothing is done, we may not be able to grow a lot of fish or farm seafood or have research animals in the future.”

For Tiersch, a longtime aquaculture researcher with the AgCenter, these concerns came to life last summer, when an extended drought and extreme heat blanketed Louisiana. Crawfish, generally regarded as a resilient species, struggled in the trying conditions. Crawfish prices soared as producers fished ponds and came up emptyhanded.

“Five years ago, even I would have laughed. Crawfish?” Tiersch said. “But after that drought, I changed my mind. The world is changing quickly. And that's why a place like the AGGRC is really important because we give people the ability to cope with that — to not just survive but maybe even get ahead.”

The team has started preliminary research on preserving crawfish genetic resources to address these challenges. And with advances being made every day at the center, they’re optimistic about the future.

“This is just a relentless hunt,” Tiersch said. “Anything aquatic that has genetic resources, we feel it's our mission to help others figure out a way to save it.”

Woman and two men stand at a table

The LSU AgCenter Aquatic Germplasm and Genetic Resources Center recently received a $2.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health Office of Research Infrastructure Programs. From left are assistant director Teresa Gutierrez-Wing, director Terry Tiersch and associate director Yue Liu. They’re pictured in front of a bank of 3D printers, which are used extensively in their research. Several tools for processing and storing genetic materials and models of the animals they work with are sitting on the table in front of them. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

Black-and-white archive photo of three men standing next to a wooden crate labeled "test tube calf."

The LSU AgCenter Aquatic Germplasm and Genetic Resources Center is located in the former LSU Dairy Improvement Center, which made early strides in the field of using genetics to improve livestock production. LSU AgCenter file photo

Axolotl in a tank.

Axolotls are seen in tanks at the LSU AgCenter Aquatic Germplasm and Genetic Resources Center. Photo by Luke Bullock/LSU AgCenter

Cooler with pink light inside

A cooler for storing algae is pictured at the LSU AgCenter Aquatic Germplasm and Genetic Resources Center. Photo by Luke Bullock/LSU AgCenter

Laboratory with large tanks for fish.

One of the wet labs at the LSU AgCenter Aquatic Germplasm and Genetic Resources Center includes several large tanks. Photo by Luke Bullock/LSU AgCenter

Table filled with small, 3D-printed aquatic creatures

Visitors to the LSU AgCenter Aquatic Germplasm and Genetic Resources Center receive 3D-printed aquatic creatures as souvenirs. Here, the trinkets are spread out on a table in a room known as the 3D printer farm. Photo by Luke Bullock/LSU AgCenter

Wooden board painted with pink axolotl

Children who tour the LSU AgCenter Aquatic Germplasm and Genetic Resources Center can have their photo taken with this board featuring a character called Miguel the Axolotl. Photo by Luke Bullock/LSU AgCenter

Room with blue wall with fish decals on it.

A digital media studio at the LSU AgCenter Aquatic Germplasm and Genetic Resources Center aids the team’s efforts to share information with partners worldwide. Photo by Luke Bullock/LSU AgCenter

6/3/2024 7:51:24 PM
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