Fishy genetics: A behind-the-scenes look at UCD’s Area 52

11 Dec 2019

Assistant prof Jens Carlsson, UCD School of Biology. Image: UCD

Jens Carlsson of the UCD School of Biology is co-founder of the Area 52 research group that aims to solve a variety of genetic questions.

After completing his PhD in 2001, followed by a stint at the Danish Institute for Freshwater Research in Silkeborg, assistant professor Jens Carlsson travelled to the US in 2002 to work as a postdoc at the Virginia Institute for Marine Science.

In 2007, he was appointed a visiting associate professor at Duke University, North Carolina, to research the population structure of striped sea bass.

In 2009, he travelled to Ireland to work at University College Cork as a senior research fellow, which included work on deep sea vessels. Then, in 2012, he made the move to University College Dublin and established his research group, Area 52.

‘Too many people have been watching the CSI TV series and have strange ideas of how a modern genetics laboratory works’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I think I have had an interest in fish since I was introduced to fishing as a kid. While completing my BSc project, I was fascinated by the questions you could ask and answer using scientific approaches.

The freedom that academic research has for coming up with projects and then sourcing funding, to actually examine these questions, was probably the reason why I stayed on in science.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

The research group Area 52 quickly developed when I started working in UCD. It is now a rather diverse group and we take on research questions from a wide range of disciplines from viral diseases in fish to identification of human remains.

It is the use of genetic methods that allows us to work with these very diverse questions and, so far, all organisms have DNA – or RNA – so there are a huge variety of questions that we can address.

This also means that we collaborate with a large number of colleagues. While we have the genetic expertise, we also need to work with people who understand the biology and ecology of the organisms.

When Area 52 started, it was only myself and my wife – and lab manager – in the lab group. But now it has grown significantly and consists of undergraduates, summer interns, visiting students, MSc students, PhD candidates, postdocs, research fellows and research scientists.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

I believe that genetics has the capacity to answer questions that no other research field can do.

For example, when you look at marine fish, there are no clear barriers preventing different populations from mixing. However, this does not mean that the fish all belong to the same biological unit or population.

While fish from multiple biological units can mix at feeding areas, they often return to specific spawning sites with each spawning site representing a single biological unit.

Multiple species have been shown using genetics separated into different populations to represent different biological units. This has profound implications for the management of fisheries species, as the level where management needs to take place is natural biological units and this might differ depending on the time of the year.

You might have multiple populations mixing at feeding grounds and it is very difficult to say which fish came from which population – when being caught in commercial fisheries – as they tend to look the same. However, by using genetic tools we are able to say which individual belongs to which population.

Furthermore, Area 52 has a strong focus on developing non-invasive sampling methods for studies of terrestrial mammals – such as elephants, zebras and giraffes – primarily in Kenya.

It is often very difficult and invasive to collect genetic material for these animals. We focus on using ‘scat’ samples that are completely non-invasive. The animal does its business and we collect the scat and use that as source of genetic material.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Area 52 often works with method development and these methods can obviously be used in the commercial world. For example, the management of fisheries species and the integrity of supply chains.

However, the main focus of the lab is in deploying the methods we develop in conservation and environmental monitoring of water ecosystems.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

It is always difficult to find time to do the research. You are teaching, mentoring, doing research and administration. At the same time, you need to secure funding for your research and that is difficult.

This is not only because of the lack of time, but also because of the strong competition among researchers for the very limited funding. This means that you can spend significant time on writing a grant application and then it is not funded. I wish the success rate of grants would be higher.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Too many people have been watching the CSI TV series and have strange ideas of how a modern genetics laboratory works.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

The big question is climate change and how that will affect distribution and survival of species. This is a very important question requiring collaboration among a large number of researchers from many different fields of science.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.