Have you ever seen a shell on the river bank and wondered what animal lived there? Those shells were probably made by freshwater mussels (sometimes lovingly called living rocks). These animals are really cool because they use fish to move their babies. The mom mussel will push her babies into the water, and the babies will grab onto a fish and hang on until they are bigger. Then they drop off and make a home at the bottom of the river. We need mussels to be around to keep our rivers and lakes healthy. These animals clean the water by removing bad things, and this makes the water safer for us to drink and play in. Mussels are also food for other animals in the river – like muskrats! And even after a mussel dies, the shell they leave behind could end up being a home to a crayfish. Despite being so important, these animals have a high chance of disappearing from the earth because humans have damaged their homes. We damaged the rivers mussels live in by building on the shore making the river a dangerous place to live, and by putting up big walls (dams) that separate groups of mussels from their families. In the late 1800s we even killed mussels to make buttons from their shells. Because mussels do important jobs like cleaning water, we want to keep them safe and prevent any further harm. One of the ways we do this is by finding groups of mussels that are in risky areas or have really low numbers. What if we could help increase the number of mussels in an area by raising baby mussels and then put them back in the wild? Will putting human-raised babies into the wild help or hurt the wild mussels and future baby mussels? I’m especially interested in the genetic makeup of these human-raised mussel babies, and how their DNA might help or hurt their future babies born in the wild. Our genetic makeup is the stuff in our body that controls how we look and act. Genetic risks are what happen when DNA causes problems for an animal or group of animals. These problems can be things like sickness or actions that make it hard to eat, move, and make babies. If the baby mussels we raise have DNA that makes them or their future babies sick, that will hurt the wild mussels too. My work will answer questions about the genetic risks of putting babies raised by humans back into the wild. My work will also answer questions about the family tree and history of these animals. I can use DNA from mussels all across North America to figure out which ones are related (like you can by sending your DNA to 23andMe), and how long ago they shared a family member. For example, are mussels in Michigan different from mussels in Tennessee? If they are different, how did they become different? If they aren’t different, how did they end up so far apart? Answering these questions can help us make choices about what groups of mussels to focus our time on and what rivers might be important to them. We may need to move a group of mussels – say a dam is being removed and a group of mussels is right next to that dam. In this case, knowing the family tree and where all their family members live can help us find a new home for them. My work will use DNA to answer questions that will help grow mussel groups and keep them safe.
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