An ocean time machine

The ocean keeps scrupulous records of its past: The comings and goings of myriad creatures, the evolving conditions they lived in, even details of who ate what.

“The ocean has a memory. We just have to tap into it,” says Kyle Van Houtan, the Aquarium’s science director.

Turkish towel red algae are common along the Pacific coast. Illustration courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Turkish towel red algae are common along the Pacific coast. Illustration courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Consider the secrets we might glean from studying a single blade of algae – commonly known as seaweed. During the year or two it was alive, were the surrounding waters pleasantly cool, or unusually acidic? What plants were its neighbors? And what was the world around it like?

With the help of modern technology, historical specimens can now answer some of these questions. And in the world of ocean science, the details amount to hidden treasure.

Like antiques that startle and thrill their owners, proving to be worth small fortunes, pressed seaweeds can yield surprisingly valuable data. Museums and herbariums hold collections of these souvenirs from the ocean, often dating back decades – and too often left unnoticed in deep storage.

Kyle lucked into one such trove when he started work at the Aquarium last year.

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Seawater sleuthing with eDNA

Every living thing is constantly shedding fragments of itself into the environment. Police detectives take advantage of this at a crime scene when they search for hair, skin or saliva—all of which contain DNA, a full genome of information unique to their owner.

Fishes, sharks and other marine organisms shed their DNA, too. In every cup of seawater, there are sloughed-off cells and waste from the animals that have swum, drifted or floated there.

This DNA from the environment is called eDNA. Over the past few years, scientists at the Center for Ocean Solutions (COS)— a partnership among the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and Stanford University—have investigated how scientists, conservationists and resource managers can use eDNA to gain critical information about marine ecosystems, more quickly and more cheaply than ever before.

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