New DNA Lab Opens at the National Zoo

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With plastic test tubes filled with sparkling juice, zoo officials, scientists and researchers toasted the opening of the Smithsonian National Zoo’s new genetics lab on “Research Hill” last Tuesday, celebrating a space that will give geneticists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute a larger place to look at "life's smallest building blocks."

“We’ve wanted to be on this hill for a long time,” said Rob Fleischer, head of the SCBI Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics.

Though genetics have been a focus of study at the Zoo for more than 20 years, the facilities scientists had available to them weren’t always ideal. Geneticists at the zoo work with a range of scientists—pathologists,  biologists,  veterinarians and behaviorists among them—to study animals in the wild and at the zoo. They also examine bones, mummies and museum specimens to travel back through history and try to figure out what diseases may have killed off species over time.

Trying to house people, animals and samples collected from all over the world under one roof was a struggle, said Steven Monfort, director of the SCBI, at the ceremony. Still, a new building didn’t seem possible just a few years ago. A tighter budget had put new buildings at the bottom of the zoo's priority list, he said. That is, until nearby Rock Creek flooded one morning, and water rose to greet geneticists as they arrived at the door.

“The water was halfway up the glass door,” Monfort said. “We knew then we had to do something.”

So they renovated an old building on Research Hill, emptying the structure (which had served as a storage unit), giving it a makeover to make it more environmentally friendly, and refilling it with technology that can accommodate and further scientists’ projects. Recently, the projects have ranged from which analyzing and trying to diagnose the amphibian chytrid fungus that is killing so many frogs around the world; monitoring the movement of coyotes around nearby Quantico, Virginia; and revealing important familial and gender relationships within dying elephant species to figure how scientists may be able to save them.

But an equally important part of the lab will be more space for the projects of the graduate and undergraduate students who receive key training by being able to work in the lab.

“These are trans-generational issues,” Monfort said. Some of the researchers who come to the zoo as students continue to study at the zoo well into their careers, or launch careers at other prestigious research and conservation centers.

Just before he cut the opening ribbon the lab, Fleischer said that tradition, along with the tradition of saving endangered species, can now grow and succeed more than ever before.

“Now we’re in a position where we can propel ourselves into greater achievements in the future,” he said.

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