Genomics Technology Enables Quick, Cost-Effective Sampling for Better Results


Who We Are

AOML scientists use Omics as an umbrella term for the study of various fields such as genomics, metagenomics, metatranscriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics, epigenomics, and high-throughput amplicon sequencing. These emerging fields help us answer research questions about DNA, RNA, proteins, and other small molecules from organisms and the environment. With this information, we can identify mechanisms that keep marine systems healthy and productive.

The Five Pillars of AOML’s Omics Activities

The Omics program at AOML works to promote coral resilience, develop and transfer emerging technologies, advance Omics for fisheries and microbiome applications, and foster the bioinformatics and infrastructure capabilities upon which all Omics research and operations rely. This work engages coral, fisheries, and microbiology experts across the agency and through international engagement.

| Luke Thompson, Ph.D

| Chris Sinigalliano, Ph.D

| Stephanie Rosales, Ph.D

| Dr. Maribeth Gidley

| Michael Studivan, Ph.D

| Katherine Silliman, Ph.D

| Nicholas MacKnight, Ph.D

| Rachael Storo

| Francis Serrano

| Robert Bremer

| Sammy Harding

Top News

A Collaborative Effort Investigates the Biological Carbon Pump, Deploying Sediment Traps Hundreds of Meters Below

A team of scientists from AOML, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the University of South Carolina retrieve a sediment trap from the Gulf of Mexico, spending months processing and examining the flurry of microscopic shells and environmental DNA (eDNA) of biological debris collected by the trap, known as “marine snow.” This collaborative NOAA–USGS research project uses these sediment trap samples to investigate the biological carbon pump, the ocean’s role in removing atmospheric carbon, and climate change patterns.

Scientists and R/V Pelican crew members recover the second of two sediment traps from a depth of 600 meters from the sea surface.

Read More News

On a beautiful calm day, the SeaTrac, a thin yellow vessel roughly the shape of a stand up paddleboard, glides aong the glassy waters of the Great Lakes, easily navigating the shallows with trees and jetties of rocks beyond it and a sea bordering the skies somewhere that we can barely define.
Only a few weeks into summer, Coral Program Interns Lorelei Ing, Taylor Gill, Zachary Zagon and Kenzie Cooke have been hard at work as they process coral samples and perform DNA extractions in preparation for ‘Omics analyses that will help to better understand how the genetic structure of corals influences their resilience to environmental stressors. The Coral Program falls within the Ocean Chemistry and Ecosystems Division (OCED) at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML).
A large white CTD being deployed into the ocean off the side of a side.
A close up of MBARI's long-range autonomous underwater vehicle (LRAUV)

Coral Restoration Omics

Resilience and Resistance

Our research aims to identify what makes certain corals more resilient to stressors like heat, ocean acidification and disease. Understanding the molecular underpinnings of coral resilience and susceptibility by identifying resilient genotypes allows resource managers to be more effective with their restoration plans, especially when out-planting corals on the reef.

Heat Stress Resilience

AOML is working to identify resilient coral genotypes to isolate the molecular mechanisms by which resilience is transferred through colonies. In-depth field research of coral bleaching patterns has revealed that some corals are more resistant to bleaching from heat stress.

Those corals have particular genetic signatures that are have acclimated to +1.0°C hotter than others of the same species. Researchers may be able to use this information to help build more resilient reefs for the future.

By identifying genetic markers for coral resilience both through lab research and field research, we can understand bleaching responses and be proactive when environmental stressors affect our reef ecosystems.

Resistance to Disease

Part of our research addresses the devastating consequences of disease spreading through South Florida and the Florida Keys at the molecular level. Scientists are modeling how disease spreads through a reef to improve their prediction of the spread of disease.

With this information, researchers can help to improve resistance on the reef and evaluate the longevity of different types of corals on the reef. Microbial source tracking is also being used to track land-based sources of pollution, and DNA sequencing is being used to investigate the biodiversity of coral microbiomes.


Advancing eDNA

eDNA Can Aid in the Detection of Higher Trophic Levels eDNA Can Inform Our Understanding of the Microbiome eDNA Is Next Generation Sustainable Science

To Understand the Microbiome

There is a global need for low-cost indicators that measure the health of marine ecosystems. The microbiome forms the base of the food web and controls things like carbon, nutrients, metals and toxins – that means that we can’t truly understand the state of marine ecosystems until we have a good understanding of its microbiome. This understanding has allowed us to appreciate the role of microbes in all aspects of life, including ocean resiliency and marine resource management as well as and infection and disease.

To Detect Higher Trophic Levels

Because eDNA comes from cells that have been sloughed or excreted from a marine organism, eDNA offers a unique opportunity to detect what marine organisms have been in the area using only seawater samples. This can be especially useful in remote sensitive areas. It also offers the ability to detect multiple trophic levels from a single sample.

We are working on using environmental DNA (eDNA) – DNA from filtered seawater to understand what kinds of higher trophic level animals (like fish or mammals) are found in a particular area. This is done by capture of sloughed or excreted cells. eDNA is collected from seawater or sediment instead of from tissues so that samples can be collected without animal capture, tissue processing, or trawling through sensitive habitats.

For Environmental Monitoring

eDNA as a technology has a wide scope of applications. Our lab uses eDNA and Omics for a wide array of applications, including environmental and water quality monitoring.

Exploring Environmental DNA Video Series


Research involving Environmental DNA or “eDNA” is an exciting and emerging area of science that can help scientists to manage endangered species, invasive species, and monitor the biodiversity of ecosystems. Learn about environmental DNA through the “Exploring Environmental DNA” video series that covers what “eDNA” is, environmental DNA sampling technology developed at NOAA AOML, and a hands-on activity for DNA extraction.

Video Cover Exploring Environmental DNA: What is eDNA?

Exploring Environmental DNA: What is eDNA?

Under 4 minutes

Video Cover Exploring Environmental DNA: The New Subsurface Automated Sampler for Environmental DNA

Exploring Environmental DNA: The New Subsurface Automated Sampler for Environmental DNA

4:25 minutes

Exploring Environmental DNA: At Home DNA Extraction Demonstration

4:45 minutes


Autonomous Omics

Reducing Ship Time & Labor with Smart Sampling

Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (eAUVs) Molecular Meets Mechanical

NOAA AOML and our partners at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) are testing new underwater autonomous vehicles (AUVs or eAUVs) that can collect, filter, and process water samples so scientists can see what organisms inhabit a particular marine area. These AUVs are deployed from ships and small boats to provide a rapid response to measure environmental changes and increase sampling coverage without the added expense of deploying additional ships and crew.

Check out the Photo Story by our partners at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

Subsurface Automatic Samplers Sample at a Set Time

AOML has developed inexpensive auto-samplers for the collection and preservation of environmental DNA (eDNA) to advance the application and utility of Omics-based technologies in marine science.  These prototypes are intuitive, cost-effective autonomous samplers that automatically filter water and preserve DNA. These samplers will serve as a low-cost solution for sampling eDNA during periods when field collection is not feasible.


Omics for Fisheries & Protected Species

eDNA for Protected Marine Turtles

Meeting Monitoring Requirements with Efficiency and Minimal Impact

A population of ~60 ‘black’ green turtles (Chelonia mydas agassizii) were listed as an endangered species and have been monitored since the 1970’s under the Endangered Species Act at the South San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Regular and continued monitoring of this population size is needed to support the National Marine Fisheries Service recovery plan for U.S. Pacific green turtle populations under shifting habitat use. Traditional monitoring methods are high-impact, laborious and expensive. By utilizing eDNA technology, low-impact spatial mapping may be possible.

Check out the web story published on NOAA Research. 

Sea Turtle Swimming on the Reef. Image shows a close-up view of the turtle and behind it a school of fish swim through the blue. Photo Credit: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Fisheries Genomics

Our ability to effectively manage fisheries is limited by our understanding of fishery populations and their dependence on environmental conditions. Including genomic information into fisheries management may improve the decision-making process and thus the sustainability of fisheries.

How genomic information affects decisions will be evaluated using advanced population assessment techniques, and the Management Strategy Evaluation framework adopted by the National Marine Fisheries Service. AOML and the Southeast Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC) have formed a collaborative partnership with a clear path to transition results into fisheries management plans for the following projects:

  • Using DNA Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (DNA SNPs) to differentiate between eastern and western stocks of Atlantic bluefin tuna to inform stock assessments and management strategy evaluation.
  • Using Restriction site Associated DNA Sequencing (ddRAD-Seq) to access the population structure of king mackerel to address pressing uncertainties affecting the stock assessment of this species.
  • Empirical models are being used to assess whether microbiome data (sometimes termed “eDNA”) improves the ability to predict distributions of fish and to understand trophic interactions and habitat use.

Enhancing Omics Workforce & Infrastructure

Image showing UV light over tanks holding Acropora Cervicornis in the Experimental Reef Lab.

Experimental Reef Laboratory

The Experimental Reef Laboratory located on the University of Miami’s Virginia Key campus at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences was completed in September of 2016. This unique experimental facility was designed to study the combined effect of heat stress and ocean acidification on corals so that scientists can see how coral organisms respond at the molecular level (DNA and RNA) under present and possible future conditions.

Rollover the dots to learn more or visit Experimental Reef Lab’s Page.

By building in-house facilities such as these, we can fulfill critical gaps in in equipment, increase efficiency and integrity of sample processing, and offer a place for partners (such as the Southeast Fisheries Science Center) and others to collaborate on new research projects.

Interpreting Omics Data with Bioinformatics

Genome-based techniques improve our ability to characterize and monitor ecosystems, including characterization environments with potential commercial potential. Examples include genomic signatures that mark natural resources such as oil and gas reserves, enzymes with commercial potential such as pharmaceutical or bioremediation potential, microbiomes that control the health of commercially valuable wild and aquaculture species, and indicators of anthropogenic stress which can forecast degraded environmental productivity.

However, our ability to supply bioinformatics expertise has not kept pace with the generation of sequence data, creating a data backlog and hindering transition of data collected into actionable information. To address this gap, AOML has been working to develop bioinformatics capacity, which is important to the success of all ‘omics projects. AOML has secured servers dedicated to bioinformatic analysis, hired young scientists to help with analysis, and created user groups (local and NOAA-wide) to provide support.

To facilitate analysis of amplicon datasets, a bioinformatics pipeline (“Tourmaline”) was created and added to AOML’s GitHub account. This automated amplicon workflow uses QIIME 2 and Snakemake and can run Deblur (single-end) or DADA2 (single-end and paired-end); steps can be manually adjusted if needed.

  • Publications & References

    Thompson, L.R., M.F. Haroon, A.A. Shibl, M.J. Cahill, D.K. Ngugi, G.J. Williams, J.T. Morton, R. Knight, K.D. Goodwin & U. Stingl. (2019). Red Sea SAR11 and Prochlorococcus single-cell genomes reflect globally distributed pangenomes. Appl Environ Microbiol,

    Franzosa, E.A., L.J. McIver, G. Rahnavard, L.R. Thompson, M. Schirmer, G. Weingart, K. Schwarzberg Lipson, R. Knight, J.G. Caporaso, N. Segata & C. Huttenhower. (2018). Species-level functional profiling of metagenomes and metatranscriptomes. Nat Meth,
    Thompson, L.R., J.G. Sanders, D. McDonald, A. Amir, J. Ladau, K.J. Locey, R.J. Prill, A. Tripathi, S.M. Gibbons, G.Ackermann, J.A. Navas-Molina, S. Janssen, E. Kopylova, Y. Va ́zquez-Baeza, A. Gonza ́lez, J.T. Morton, S. Mirarab, Z.Z. Xu, L. Jiang, M.F. Haroon, J. Kanbar, Q. Zhu, S. Song, T. Kosciolek, N.A. Bokulich, J. Lefler, C.J. Brislawn, G.C. Humphrey, S.M. Owens, J. Hampton-Marcell, D. Berg-Lyons, V. McKenzie, N. Fierer, J.A. Fuhrman, A. Clauset, R.L. Stevens, A. Shade, K.S. Pollard, K.D. Goodwin, J.K. Jansson, J.A. Gilbert, R. Knight & The Earth Microbiome Project Consortium. (2017). A communal catalogue reveals Earth’s multiscale microbial diversity. Nature 551:457–463,
    Goodwin, K.D., L.R. Thompson, B. Duarte, T. Kahlke, J.C. Marques & I. Cac ̧ador. (2017). DNA sequencing as atool to monitor marine ecological status. Front Mar Sci 4:107,
    Amir, A., D. McDonald, J.A. Navas-Molina, E. Kopylova, J. Morton, Z.Z. Xu, E.P. Kightley, L.R. Thompson, E.R. Hyde, A. Gonzalez & R. Knight. (2017). Deblur rapidly resolves single-nucleotide community sequence patterns. mSystems 2(2):e00191–16,

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