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Category: News

A genetic clock can predict lifespan in mammals, UGA’s SREL research suggests 

By Lauren Maynor

University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory former graduate student Emily Bertucci-Richter and SREL associate professor Benjamin Parrott in the field. (Picture courtesy of UGA SREL)

Do humans have a ticking clock within them that can determine their lifespan? The answer may surprise you.  

A recent study conducted by Emily Bertucci-Richter, a genomics analyst at the University of Michigan and former graduate student at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Lab, and Benjamin Parrott, associate professor at SREL, has provided fascinating new insights into the phenomenon of epigenetic drift, also known as “epigenetic disorder.” This biological process is like a countdown within an animal’s DNA, marking the passage of time and influencing its rate of aging.  

“There are a lot of folks working on epigenetic aging as it relates to human health,” Parrott explains. “Age is a major risk factor for many human diseases including cancers, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.” 

Epigenetic drift is a process in which changes happen to an animal’s DNA as it ages, affecting the aging process. This research sought to unravel the mysteries surrounding epigenetic drift and its possible contribution to the differences in maximum lifespan observed across various mammal species. 

The researchers monitored how rats, mice, dogs, and baboons age and how chemical modifications to their DNA change over time. The study analyzed the dynamics of epigenetic drift accumulation with age across these four mammal species. They aimed to understand how it relates to maximum lifespan and whether CpG density, a specific DNA sequence, plays a role in buffering against epigenetic drift. Their findings hinted at the possible protective role of CpG density in mitigating the effects of age-associated epigenetic disorder.  

“Our working model and hypothesis are that CpG density does play a role in buffering against epigenetic drift,” Parrott says. “Other researchers have found that the CpG density in certain regions of the genome is higher in longer-lived species when compared to species with shorter lifespans. For example, humans, chimps, and dogs have greater CpG density than mice and rats.” 

The researchers found that all animals they studied experience epigenetic drift, but it happens faster in animals that have shorter lifespans. Their study suggests that there are other mechanisms, in addition to CpG density, that act to slow epigenetic drift. 

Parrott adds, “Genes involved in repairing DNA damage might underlie some of the differences in the rate of epigenetic drift. For example, Sirtuin proteins are involved in DNA repair and some nice work from Dr. Vera Gorbunova’s lab has shown that Sirtuins in longer-lived species are more efficient at repairing breaks in DNA when compared to the same genes in shorter-lived species.” 

These findings supported the researchers’ hypothesis that the rate of epigenetic drift explains maximum lifespan. The research conducted provided partial support for the hypothesis that CpG density buffers against epigenetic drift.  

Their research findings have significant implications in aging research. By understanding the role of epigenetic drift in aging, scientists may be able to develop new ways to predict and potentially slow down the aging process. 

“Our group is driven by basic curiosity,” Parrott says. “Why is it that some species live longer than others? What are the ecological and evolutionary dynamics that led to such wide variation in lifespans across the tree of life? These questions are a major inspiration for the work we do, and this study gets us just a bit closer to better understanding the answer.” 

The original study, The rate of epigenetic drift scales with maximum lifespan across mammals, was completed by Emily Bertucci-Richter and Benjamin Parrott at SREL.  

The Power of Progress: Head-starting and the Future of Mojave Desert Tortoise Conservation

Researchers from the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in collaboration with the University of California, Davis, recently conducted a study in the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County, California, to further investigate the effectiveness of head-starting as a conservation tool for the Mojave desert tortoise. This species is currently listed as “Threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act due to significant threats from habitat destruction and over-exploitation and was listed as “Endangered” by the State of California.

Whit Gibbons earns John Herr Lifetime Achievement Award

AIKEN, SOUTH CAROLINA, April 2, 2024 – J. Whitfield “Whit” Gibbons, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, was honored with the 2024 John Herr Lifetime Achievement Award by the Association of Southeastern Biologists (ASB). Gibbons was honored on Friday, March 22, 2024, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for his astounding body of work and contributions to the field of ecology.

This prestigious award is given yearly by the ASB. Its two main criteria include a long-standing devotion to ASB and contributions to the advancement of biology in the southeastern United States. 

Gibbons was venerated with this award due to his mentorship and engagement of students and other early career professionals and his dedication to environmental outreach. Over his lifetime, Gibbons has published over 250 peer-reviewed articles, 30 books, and 2000 weekly installments of “Ecoviews”.  Gibbons has also mentored 45 master’s and PhD students over his career. These facets are just some of the reasons that showcase Gibbon’s dedication to the field of ecology.

Gibbons states about this honor, “I am honored to have been the recipient of the award but owe any achievements to my long-term associates at ASB and to SREL and other UGA colleagues, especially former students. It has been a wonderful experience, and my thanks go out to them. I continue to learn from them and admire their dedication to ecological research in concert with environmental outreach and education for all.”

UGA’s Savannah River Ecology Lab appoints Lauren Maynor as its first Science Content Strategist

The University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory has announced the appointment of Lauren Maynor as the first ever Science Content Strategist to effectively bridge the gap between researchers and the general public. Maynor brings a bachelor’s degree in English, a concentration in professional writing, and an extensive background in social media with experience in biology.

Shedding light on night drives

A new study delves into factors that impact detecting wildlife after dark

By Katrina M. Ford

According to a 2008 study, wildlife-vehicle collisions cost an estimated $8.4 billion in damages, with more than 58,000 people injured and 440 deaths occurring annually. These numbers continue to increase as urban sprawl expands and human-wildlife interactions increase. For many folks, wildlife-vehicle collisions are becoming a part of life. This is especially dangerous with days getting darker earlier.

A recent study conducted at the Savannah River Site by scientists and students from the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory sheds light on the ability of drivers to observe animals and avoid dangerous wildlife-vehicle collisions at night safely.

“Our goal was to examine how various animals, drivers and environmental variables influenced drivers’ ability to detect animals at night and avoid collisions. We wanted to better understand why wildlife-vehicle collisions at night are so common,” said Travis DeVault, associate director for research at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and senior author on this study.

Read the whole article on UGA News.

Bait, Bite, and Beware: The Complex Web of Invasive Species Management in Guam

In Guam, the battle against invasive species like the brown tree snake has led to the use of toxicant-laced bait, a method that’s proven effective but controversial. Recent studies reveal both invasive and native species scavenge on these toxicant-affected carcasses, raising concerns about unintended ecological consequences and the broader impact on the island’s ecosystem.

Can fences hold back nature?

How do fences affect wildlife movement patterns? This question has been trending in wildlife management for decades. From mountain lions in Los Angeles crossing freeways to fences in our own backyards repelling deer, wild pigs, and squirrels, how do human-made barriers affect wildlife?

James Beasley, a professor with the University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, along with a team of international collaborators, investigated this topic in large carnivores in Etosha National Park in Namibia. Beasley and his lab focused on the movements of hyenas and lions within the national park. Unlike national parks in the United States, many parks in southern Africa are fenced.

The Savannah River Ecology Lab releases offspring of confiscated turtles

The University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, in partnership with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, USDA Forest Service – Savannah River, and the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, successfully released offspring of confiscated eastern box turtles on June 29, 2023 at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina. This accomplishment was the culmination of a story four years in the making following the journeys of over 200 confiscated eastern box turtles, their offspring, and owner-surrendered turtles.

Science Saturday is back!

Slither, hop, or soar into SREL’s premier event!

AIKEN, SOUTH CAROLINA, July 11, 2023 – The University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory is hosting, for the first time in four years, Science Saturday (formerly Touch an Animal Day) on Saturday, July 15, 2023. This event will be held at South Aiken High School from 10 AM – 1 PM. 

Attendees will have the opportunity to hold alligators, touch a rattlesnake, watch plants breath, see vultures, owls, and hawks, and meet some adorable critters. In addition to exhibiting plants and animals, residents will be able to talk with scientists and graduate students about their research. 

“This event showcases a little bit of everything from the lab,” states Katrina Ford, assistant director for outreach and education.  Ford adds, “It’s a chance for the public to get up and close with the science being conducted at SREL.”

Olin Rhodes, the director for the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and a professor in the Odum School of Ecology, asserts, “It is critical that SREL shows the public the types of research and education efforts that we conduct at the lab so that they understand our important role in the community in helping to keep everyone informed about potential health risks as well as the progress toward keeping our natural environment healthy and sustainable for future generations.”

Science Saturday is one of several free programs offered at SREL.  The lab has a long history of community involvement and investment into the next generation. The Outreach and Education team presents programs such as Ecologist for a Day and EcoTalks throughout the year. The Ecologist for a Day program allows students to become immersed in a guided facilitated field experience. Students identify living and nonliving components that make up our local ecosystems. Students participating are inspired to consider careers in the areas of S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and math).

In addition to offering opportunities to community, SREL provides a variety of occasions for undergraduate and graduate students pursuing careers in environmental science and related disciplines to experience field work through internships, courses, and technician positions.

Rhodes affirms, “SREL is committed to utilizing its unique set of scientific expertise and state of the art research facilities to provide educational opportunities to undergraduates and graduate students from our local communities, our region, and from across the globe.  A large part of SREL’s mission is to train future generations on how to conduct impactful and high-quality research for the benefit of our local communities, our nation, and our natural environment.”