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60-Second Science

Mussel Ride Waves with Genes Waves

Marine mussels brave their constantly changing environment by switching on and off genes so they can perform necessary life tasks when its best to do so. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

Spending your life hanging out at the seaside might sound like easy livin’. But for marine mussels, a day at the shore is no walk on the beach. Clinging to a boulder in the intertidal zone, a mussel might find that the temperature of its environment changes 50 degrees in a matter of hours, depending on whether it’s bathed in cool seawater or baking in the sun. To handle such challenges, mussels have evolved a sophisticated strategy for systematically turning on and off the genes they need to survive.

Scientists from the University of Southern California spent a few days sampling mussel beds just south of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Every few hours, they collected the mussels’ genetic material and spread it on a gene chip to figure out which genes were active, and when. To their surprise, they found that mussels coordinate their gene activity in waves, alternating between genes responsible for growing and genes responsible for eating. And the harsher the environment, the more pronounced the oscillations, results that appear in the October 9th issue of Current Biology. It’s not yet clear what drives these gene cycles. But it seems that even mussels know that you gotta ride the wave if you want to avoid a wipeout.

—Karen Hopkin

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