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Scientist Uses Fish To Unlock Ecological Secrets

By modeling the evolutionary biology of ray-finned fishes, Alex Dornburg is answering an array of cross-disciplinary questions. His research on fish’s “tree of life” has applications for creating public health reporting systems, fighting antibiotic resistance, directing reforestation efforts in Madagascar and overturning understanding of biodiversity in Antarctica. 

Host Frank Stasio talks with Alex Dornburg, research curator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, about fish and their contribution to a better understanding of life on Earth.


On his job as a research curator:
I have what I think is the coolest job in the world, and it’s one that I think people don’t even really know exists. So when you hear the word curator you imagine somebody in an old Victorian hat going around the world making taxidermy. And what I do as a curator that’s really cool is … At the Museum of Natural Sciences we have this amazing collection of animals that have been collected for science for hundreds of years, and part of job is maintaining that collection and it’s [a] vital resource for scientists around the world … The other part of my job is to basically research biodiversity. So I do what's called biodiversity science … I investigate how stuff originates and how diversity stays around. 


On new findings about how diversity persists in Antarctica:
It’s like if you’re standing in the middle of the U.S. in Kansas or Wyoming and somebody says, “Oh yeah, all the animals around here, they came from Florida and the Bahamas, like, you know, a million years ago.” … Stuff is getting isolated,and
any time you isolate populations, that’s the recipe for speciation. You’ve got all these isolated populations that are isolated long enough to evolve genetic differences, and then they can recolonize, and then very quickly also respeciate all along the continent. And then that engine keeps resetting itself over and over and over again.  


On the emerging biodiversity crisis:
The scientific community is really just starting to talk about this emerging biodiversity crisis, which is: over earth history we know animals have moved, and environments have changed. But what we tend to do is we tend to think about conservation in terms of a static environment. So it’s like, this park will always be this park, and it will never change. But unfortunately, we are now in a position where stuff’s changing very rapidly. And animals and plants and everything else needs places to go. And we’ll be moving … There are entire ecosystems that may be running out of places to move.


On interdisciplinary collaboration in the Triangle and its research implications:
Just since coming here to the Triangle I’ve started working with a professor at the college of veterinary medicine. He’s a zebrafish biologist who studies zebrafish immune genes. And I’ve known zebrafishes were model organisms, but they’re so easy to manipulate in the lab that they’re incredible models for understanding everything from how tissues form to how immune genes function. And what we’ve started to do and collaborate on is bringing this sort of evolutionary perspective to try to link immune gene research in zebrafishes back to mammals. 


On how to think about evolution:
Evolution is not linear. The worst thing to picture is that graph of a chimp going up to a human going down to, like, a computer scientist like me. What you really should be thinking about is everything that’s alive today … We all had equal amounts of time to evolve to different pressures. So nothing is more evolved than something else. 

Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.