Can you tell the difference between a young dolphin and an old one? Neither can scientists — not without pulling a tooth, sawing it in half and counting the growth layers like the rings of a tree.
But that process isn’t pleasant for anyone, especially the dolphins. It’s also expensive and a complicated. This kind of information is important, though. Age isn’t just a number. It’s a critical part of learning more about the overall health of a population.
That’s why FIU researcher Jose Eirin-Lopez and Ph.D. student Andria Beal created and developed a tool that can determine a dolphin’s age through a small skin sample. The less-invasive Bottlenose Dolphin Epigenetic Age Estimation Tool — or BEAT — gets rid of the guess work.
Epigenetics is a rapidly growing field of science that explores how living organisms interact and respond to their environment. DNA is the rulebook or manual for life, the genome. It is divided into different sections. Some cells will only use instructions in specific sections. Environmental factors, such as light, temperature, stress or even famine, control what chapters will be used at different times of life. The bookmarks in this rulebook — guiding how the rules are read and what adaptations happen in response to the changes — are the epigenetic markers.