A Tale of Two Careers: from DJ to DNA – the genetics lab in Honduras with Jim Labisko

A wood shed in the middle of a Honduran cloud forest might not be what first comes to mind when you think of the words “DNA lab”, but there is one there nonetheless, run by Operation Wallacea on their yearly summer expedition to Cusuco National Park.

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Operation Wallacea conducts conservation field research in many countries around the world, and provides young people with the opportunity to experience this type of career first hand. In Cusuco, the scientists are conducting several different projects focusing on various groups of animals plants, such as amphibians, bats, and bromeliads. At the core of all research is the effort to monitor the local biodiversity.

In a recent scientific paper, Cusuco National Park was deemed one of the most irreplaceable areas on the planet – particularly for amphibians. There are many species in the park and they face several threats. One such threat is Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (or Bd for short!), a potentially lethal fungal pathogen that causes the disease chytridiomycosis (also known as chytrid) and is contributing to amphibian declines worldwide, leaving many species staring down the barrel of extinction.

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Metamorph Cusuco spotted treefrog (Plectrohyla dasypus) – Critically Endangered ©Jim Labisko.

And this is where Jim Labisko steps in: “What we are doing here at Cusuco is monitoring presence/absence of chytrid, which is a significant factor driving amphibian declines globally. We’re focusing on four key species, all tree frogs, three of which are endangered, two critically.”

There are several satellite camps throughout Cusuco, and the herpetology team with the help of the volunteers and students, survey the pre-established forest transects on these camps, on the prowl for amphibians and reptiles. Any amphibians caught get their bellies, legs and feet swabbed. That swab is then brought back to Basecamp, to Jim´s DNA lab.

“Because infection loads and levels can differ temporally and spatially, and within and between species in different areas of the park, monitoring helps us to generate an idea of what is happening. build a long term dataset whereby we can compare data year on year and get an idea of prevalence and levels of infection or even lack of infection in certain species, the park.”

Stepping into the DNA lab reminds me of my undergraduate lab classes, if in a somewhat more rustic environment; humming PCR machines, an abundance of pipettes and labeled tubes everywhere.

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The DNA lab ©Marta Calix.

As the samples started coming in, Jim could always be found in the lab, gloves on, pipetting away. Soon enough, some samples started testing positive for chytrid: “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing (finding chytrid), because we haven´t found any dead or dying amphibians. Though we may be finding Bd on frogs, it doesn’t mean that they have chytrid it just means that we are detecting a certain level of zoospores on some of the frogs that we are sampling from. To my knowledge no one on the herp team has come across any frogs exhibiting significant signs of stress or illness, which is a positive thing.”

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Of course, there are always challenges: The biggest one has been getting this stuff to work in the lab. Being the best part of sixteen hundred meters up a mountain in cloud forest means it’s not the most contaminant free laboratory I’ve ever worked in – we had a bat flying about in here a couple of weeks back!

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Cusuco salamander (Bolitoglossa diaphora) – Critically Endangered ©Jim Labisko.

Seeing Jim move around in the lab, you would never think that his professional life started in a very different setting from this. I was extremely surprised to find out that he started as a DJ: “When I was a kid, there were two things that I wanted to do. The first was to be a DJ and the other one was to be David Attenborough. I left school very early, went out to work and started DJing. Later, I came to a point in my life when I thought I want to do something else. I went to university, did an undergraduate degree in wildlife conservation, finished that in 2011 and started the project that I am now getting towards the end of.

I am in the last year of my PhD at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology looking at evolutionary relationships in a very special group of frogs; the only amphibian family endemic to an island chain – the sooglossids. In 2009 a new population was found on an island were they hadn´t previously been recorded and my PhD is looking at the evolutionary relationships and origins of this new population, and also the whole of the Sooglossidae.”

My next question was whether deciding to completely change his life and pursue his other childhood dream had been a hard decision: “No. It took a bit of time for the whole thing to formulate, but once I´d realized what I could do and then decided to do it, it was no brainer. It was the best thing I´ve ever done. It all slid into place in some weird but totally awesome way, I feel very fortunate. You make your own luck, you put yourself in the right position, but I still feel very fortunate. This is what I want to do until I retire.”

Masked mountain frog (Lithobates maculatus) – Least Concern ©Jim Labisko.

Masked mountain frog (Lithobates maculatus) – Least Concern ©Jim Labisko.

Finally, I will leave you with Jim´s advice:Dont give up. In anything. If you want it enough you will make it happen. The more obstacles you put in your own way the more likely you are not to achieve your goals and fulfill your dreams. If ten years ago you had told me that I would be sitting in a lab in Honduras in 2015 I would not have believed you.

Jim´s favourite sound in Cusuco: the Emerald Toucanets (Aulacorhyncus prasinus).

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