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Nittany Lion Genome Project Ready To Move On In Sequencing Process

The Nittany Lion Genome Project started raising funds about a year ago to start the sequencing of northeastern mountain lion (Nittany Lion) mitochondrial DNA in the hopes of raising conservation awareness and knowledge for mountain lions in the United States. Lead undergraduate researcher Maya Evanitsky and principal investigator Dr. PJ Perry reached their $12,000 goal to start the mitochondrial DNA sequencing, and they are ready to publish their paper in the near future.

En route to raising the necessary $12,000 to start the sequencing, the researchers had many donors come through with donations to help them reach their goal. “There were more than 140 donors, which is really amazing,” Dr. Perry said. “It’s neat to work on a project where there’s really great community support and interest.”

The Nittany Lion, long extinct in Pennsylvania, has been the symbol for Penn State for years, and that’s one reason why the project has generated so much interest in the area and across campus. Conservation is another driving force for the research. “The primary goal of this study was to get the overall diversity of mountain lions since we don’t really have a lot of data for northeastern mountain lions,” Evanitsky said.

Both Evanitsky and Dr. Perry explained how a lack of diversity, especially in the Florida panther population, is proving hazardous for the health of the species. The sequencing of the northeastern mountain lion DNA can also help to promote conservation efforts among the lions across the country. “We can talk about the impacts of regional extinction on the overall mountain lion population and raise general awareness about wildlife conservation issues for other species,” Dr. Perry said.

The first phase of the project was the sequencing of the mitochondrial DNA in the northeastern mountain lion. “The first phase, sequencing the mitochondrial genome, is pretty much done,” Evanitsky said. “Phase two would be the nuclear genome.”

In an ancient DNA sample from a mountain lion, the sequencing of DNA (both mitochondrial and nuclear) can be difficult and expensive. “When you’re working with ancient DNA samples and your DNA quantities are very limited, it’s a lot easier to sequence mitochondrial DNA, and it’s harder to sequence nuclear DNA,” Dr. Perry said. “So, we started with mitochondrial DNA.”

The sequencing of the mitochondrial DNA led the team into phase two of the project, the sequencing of the nuclear DNA. “We were able to identify two or three samples that we’re working with where the quantity is good enough for the next phase to sequence the complete nuclear genome,” Dr. Perry said.

Completing the nuclear genome sequencing would put the Nittany Lion Genome Project researchers at the forefront of the mountain lion research world. “Currently, there is no complete nuclear genome sequence for mountain lions,” Evanitsky said.

If the team were to complete the sequencing, they could compare their sequence with those of other mountain lions, such as the Florida panther or western mountain lion. This would lead to a greater knowledge on mountain lion diversity and better conservation practices to improve the health of the species.

The next phase of the project will involve even more funding than last time, however, which is a main obstacle for the team going forward. “DNA sequencing is becoming cheaper and cheaper,” Dr. Perry said, “but for ancient DNA, it’s still very expensive because the DNA is degraded and damaged, and it’s difficult to work with.”

Evanitsky, a graduating senior, will not be around to see the final sequencing of the nuclear genome, but Dr. Perry is still hopeful about the future of the project. “We’ll start the nuclear genome next year, and it might take a year or two,” Dr. Perry said. “I have some ideas for potentially integrating the analysis of the nuclear genome DNA into a class to involve more students as we do bioinformatics and computational methods training.”

The future of the project is in good hands with Dr. Perry, and he’s excited to publish his results and see the reaction from the community. “You can see support from people and interest across the university and beyond,” Dr. Perry said, “so, it’ll be really special to take these results and publish them and give additional talks about them.”

It will be exciting to see the progress the Nittany Lion Genome Project researchers can make in their next phases of the project. Even more importantly, it will be exciting to see how their findings impact conservation efforts across the country. Even though the Nittany Lion may no longer be a living species in the area, the Florida panthers and western mountain lions are species worth saving, and the Nittany Lion Genome Project has that as one of their top goals.

About the Author

Matt Coleman

Matt Coleman is a writer for Onward State. His hometown is North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, a little under an hour from Pittsburgh. He is a sophomore majoring in Natural Resource Engineering in Biological Engineering. Please e-mail questions and comments to [email protected] Also, follow him on Twitter @cole_man2.

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