Fishing for answers: Geneticist using DNA to decode Alaska salmon’s family ties

Wei Cheng is a member of the Council’s Scientific Advisory Committee. The committee is made up of scientists and citizens working to promote the environmentally safe operations of the terminal and tankers through independent scientific research, environmental monitoring, and review of scientific work.

Volunteer Spotlight: Wei Cheng

Wei Cheng says she is happy and fortunate to be able to use her expertise in genetics to help protect Alaska’s salmon.

At her job with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADF&G, she analyzes genetic changes in fish to map the relationships among populations of salmon and other species of fish. The information she gains helps fisheries managers make decisions protect the integrity of wild populations of fish species.

Cheng is surprised at how much she enjoys the work. “To be honest, I was not interested in fisheries at all at the beginning,” she laughs.

Before coming to the United States from China, she graduated from medical school. Her area of interest was in human genetics and diseases, so she moved to Pittsburgh for graduate work in molecular biology at Duquesne University.

After graduation, her husband’s work brought them to Juneau.

“In Alaska we don’t have medical schools, pharmaceutical companies, or medical research labs,” Cheng says about her search for a job.

But she got lucky. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Auke Bay Laboratories reeled her in to help with studies using genetic analysis.

“That’s where I started working in fisheries.”

Cheng and her family eventually ended up in Anchorage, where she now works at ADF&G’s Gene Conservation Laboratory.

She has studied the population structure of pink salmon in Prince William Sound This study is the initial step to examine the interactions of wild and hatchery pink salmon in the area.

Salmon tend to spawn in the streams and rivers where they were born. But Cheng says sometimes they stray.

“Hatchery-origin fish may stray into natural streams. They may interact with wild fish and influence wild fish populations through ecological or genetic effects.” Cheng adds.

To protect the populations of wild fish, hatchery programs are required to collect their eggs from local fish. Using fish with local genetic profiles means that strays are less likely to harm local populations if they interbreed.

“I never did field work before I started working for Fish and Game,“ she says. “Alaska is a very beautiful state, especially during summertime. Although the work is really hard, Prince William Sound is so beautiful. I really appreciate seeing the project from the field to the final results.”

Joining the Scientific Advisory Committee

A few years ago, the committee started developing projects that involved genetic analysis, such as a recent study of mussel DNA to learn more about how genes respond to stressors such as crude oil, among several others. So the committee sought out an expert on the topic. Cheng says it’s been a great fit.

“For me, it is nice to use my expertise to help the community.”

Cheng says there are other ways genetic tools could help further the Council’s mission. One possibility she finds interesting is analyzing the waters of Prince William Sound for environmental DNA, referred to as “eDNA,” to monitor for invasive species.

This could be useful for the early detection of invasive species such as European green crab. Current monitoring methods are labor-intensive, requiring placement of traps in waters where invasive crab are likely to take hold. Early in an invasion, there may only be a few individuals.

All living beings shed cells into their environment.

“We can collect water and the water sample can contain eDNA if those animals exist in that environment.”

Cheng has helped the Scientific Advisory Committee develop several projects using genetic analysis tools. You can read about several of these here on our website:
Genetics as a monitoring tool

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