Katie Eaton has spent a good bit of time studying fish, but not to tell which one is the tastiest.
“The goal of my research is basically to understand how organisms respond to their environment,” said Eaton, a graduate teaching assistant at Auburn University in Alabama. “If you put an organism in a different environment, it’s going to have a weird response.
“So you put a fish in a bucket of super-hot water. It’s going to get really stressed out, and you can see that because the fish is going to be breathing heavy. It’s going to be swimming weird.
“But there also are changes happening at the molecular level,” she continued. “Changes to how its genes are functioning.”
In a recent three-day workshop at the SimCenter at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Eaton and a host of other researchers from colleges and universities around the country studied data—a whole lot of data.
The workshop—named the Southeastern Computational Biology School—was organized and managed by Fernando Alda, assistant professor in the UTC Department of Biology, Geology and Environmental Science.
“We organize this to learn ourselves and also bring people from other places so they can also learn,” Alba said.
Along with UTC students, researchers came from such schools as Loyola University in Chicago, the University of California Pomona, the University of Southern Florida and Louisiana State University. Most were graduate students.
The supercomputers at the SimCenter helped crunch Eaton’s data quickly and into a format that could be examined and educational. The goal was to determine how various environments may affect living creatures down to the gene level, perhaps even altering genes—thus altering the creature overall.
“We get this data and it comes back to us in a gigantic file. It’s a gigantic jumble,” Alda said. “We can use the computational resources at the SimCenter to help us organize this and basically figure out what’s going on within an organism.”
Studying fish genes might not seem to have any useful purpose in humans’ day-to-day lives, but he said it could help research diseases and possible cures, using COVID as an example.
He explained that when COVID infects a cell, it latches onto cellular proteins to reproduce. Examining cells at the genetic level can show how the cell fights back.
“You’re going to see genes related to immune response,” he said. “With this data, you can see that and see what are the genes that are playing a role and why these are important to fight back.”