October 23, 2014, 1:52 am

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  • Lophelia pertusa colony, Mingulay Reef, NE Atlantic
Lophelia pertusa colony, Mingulay Reef, NE Atlantic. © J.M. Roberts, SAMS (2005).

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Molecular Ecology

Molecular genetics and cold-water corals

The use of genetic techniques to study deep-sea organisms has increased significantly in recent times. These techniques provide the basis for an unseen science; invisible to the naked eye, these hidden genetic patterns can now be unraveled using the techniques of molecular genetics.

This approach became widespread with the development of gel electrophoresis, a versatile technique for separating molecules by characteristics such as size, shape or isoelectric point, it is often used as a precursor for more time consuming and focused techniques such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Using these and other techniques, scientists can investigate the relationships between different species or even members of the same species by using common gene sequences.

The power of this new science allows scientists to study differences among species and between members of the same species. These techniques have been used to show that seemingly cosmopolitan species found in the deep-sea are actually groups of closely related species which are each restricted in their distribution. More recently, these techniques have shown that key cold-water coral species such as Madrepora oculata may be incorrectly described.