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Inside that mysterious goo, oysters have a story

©Guofan Zhang, photo by Tao Liu

The oyster is more than a seafood favorite. It’s an ecological lynchpin in Puget Sound and on beaches around the world, so scientists are thankful the Pacific oyster is the latest creature to have its genetic code unveiled.

The shellfish has a lot going on inside.

“I'm just always totally amazed that what most people think of as a shell full of goo, when they open it up, has this very complex physiology, where they control reproductive process very similar to humans and mammals,” says Steven Roberts, a professor of fisheries at the University of Washington.

And, their immune systems could have much to teach us, since they suck in everything from the water they live in and filter it, encountering a huge variety of pathogens.

The Pacific oyster is a native of Asia, but it was introduced to Washington state for commercial oyster farming back in the 1920s. It’s so resilient that it’s replaced most of the native oysters. And that story has repeated on other continents.

Researchers at the UW in the 1980s created a breed of Pacific oysters that is nearly sterile, grows huge, and can be harvested all year long without getting mushy. All of that led the local oyster farming industry to become a global leader.

Surviving global warming

With global climate change posing a severe threat to many shellfish – by changing the chemistry of the ocean in a way that could make it hard for clams and crabs to form shells – it could prove useful for ecologists to understand how a resilient oyster keeps adapting.

The research was done by a team based in China and New Jersey, and published in the journal Nature.

“It’s pretty huge,” says Roberts. “We have been waiting for it for a long time.”

It should speed-up all kinds of shellfish research, including several oyster studies in the works in his lab.

Having the entire genome of the Pacific oyster at their fingertips should also help the oyster industry breed more resilient oysters, while maintaining genetic diversity.

Keith Seinfeld has been KPLU’s Health & Science Reporter since 2001, and prior to that covered the Environment beat. He’s been a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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