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Cal Poly Biology Student Conducts First-of-its-Kind Research on Cambria Elephant Seals

Woman on the beach smiling with a group of elephant seals in the backgroundMelissa Voisinet worked alongside Cal Poly Professor Lars Tomanek using proteomics to study Elephant seals in Cambria. 
Contributed photo.

 

Twice a year, hoards of Elephant seals take to isolated stretches of beach along Highway 1. The hefty marine mammals spend just a few months on land, either molting or breeding, before making their way back into the ocean.

Using an innovative lab technique, Cal Poly researchers are hoping to understand how the cyclical sea-to-land transition influences the physiology of elephant seals.

Melissa Voisinet, a recent biological sciences graduate, and professor Lars Tomanek set out to find an answer to that question using proteomics, a method of analyzing proteins to determine how organisms respond to different environmental stresses. Proteomics has gained traction at Cal Poly since its introduction by Tomanek in 2013.

“This is the first proteomics analysis of a marine mammal anywhere that we know of, and Melissa did it when she was an undergraduate,” Tomanek said. “This is just simply remarkable.”

The research looks at the physiology of elephant seal pups during their post-weaning fast. The fast occurs once the adult females return to the sea, leaving the pups to learn how to eat and swim on their own. This process generally takes about two months.

Voisinet and Tomanek collected tissue samples from the seals to determine which proteins were present at different points in the pups’ life cycle and in what abundance.

“Elephant seals have evolved physiological adaptations for stressors such as fasting that we are able to analyze using proteomics,” Voisinet said. “It’s an unbiased, novel approach.” 

Next, the team plans to conduct a study with Weddell seal pups, a species of seal with large colonies in Antarctica. The goal is to compare the physiological differences in weaning patterns of Weddell seals to elephant seals.

Voisinet will head to Antarctica in 2017 alongside Tomanek and Heather Liwanag, also a professor in the Biological Sciences Department, to collect tissue samples from Weddell seal pups.

“This project will provide months of marine mammal field experience,” said Voisinet, who will begin her graduate work at Cal Poly in the fall. “I am hoping to publish our results from this work, which I think is pretty fortunate as an undergraduate.”

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