Unlocking the Genetic Code in Whale SnotApril 10, 2018
Fifteen years after his first visit to a SeaWorld park, Long Island high schooler Luke Harris is putting his lifelong love for killer whales to good use – and he’s using whale boogers to do it. As part of a high school research course, Luke deployed a friendlier protocol for extracting DNA from the mucus of the whales, collecting their boogers rather than the traditional, but invasive, method of using biopsy darts. Inspired by a technology called the ‘SnotBot’ – a drone that scientists use to collect mucus samples from pods of wild killer whales – Luke is helping contribute to a new field of marine mammal investigation.
While his research began in high school, Harris’ love for killer whales truly began when he was eight years old and had his first interaction with Ikaika, a killer whale who found his permanent home at SeaWorld San Diego.
“The young orca swam right to the edge of his pool and looked straight into my eyes,” Harris said. “I walked around the pool, he followed. Refusing to listen to the trainer, I realized he wanted to interact with just me! This was the moment it became real to me…Ever since then, I’ve known that I wanted to do something with killer whales, and SeaWorld has made this possible.”
Harris found his opportunity in the form of a high school class that requires students to conduct an intensive research project during their junior and senior years. Harris knew he wanted to work on a project that would benefit his favorite animal, so he took a leap of faith and contacted SeaWorld to see if they would help him conduct his research, which would focus on genetic studies.
SeaWorld’s trainers in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio sent 22 snot samples from their whales’ blowholes all the way to Long Island, New York for Harris to study, giving this budding marine biologist access to samples he could only dream of collecting from the wild. From these samples, Luke was able to extract whale DNA and analyze the difference in a specific gene (CO1), which researchers use to differentiate between killer whale populations in the wild.
[Luke Harris poses in front of a pool at SeaWorld San Antonio in 2018]
As he approaches graduation this spring, Luke is excited to continue his studies in college with a focus on marine biology. While he’s not quite sure what’s to come, there’s one thing that Luke knows for certain: his future is with killer whales. “The ocean is a vast frontier and one I want to explore,” he writes in his college essay. “I know that one day, with perseverance, and determination I will work with killer whales. I’ll research and educate our society, persuading all to protect our marine mammals and our one ocean - my true home.”