Prof explains genetics, Bigfoot

May 1, 2014

Ward Pettibone for WSN

Todd Disotell has traveled all around North America in search of Bigfoot, but yesterday he came to NYU to discuss his research on conservation genetics for primates.

The anthropology professor emphasized the power of modern DNA technology in conservation efforts and explained how sequencing DNA of various primate species better classifies them.

“It’s applying DNA analyses and techniques to try to identify either new species or subspecies, or to clarify to what species or subspecies a particular population [belongs],” Disotell said, adding that officially naming species is crucial for their conservation because they cannot be legally protected until they are identified.

Disotell uses secondary sequencing technology to compare closely related organisms and clarify their taxonomic classification.

He said although there is no specific amount of genetic difference distinguishing two species, genetic sequencing is a method researchers use to determine classifications. During this process, researchers compare the difference between the two species under scrutiny with that of two established, distinct species. If the difference is greater between the two studied species than the two comparison species, then it is likely that they are different species.

Disotell samples the animals’ DNA at a distance to avoid human-primate contact.

Sharon Ng, a junior research scientist at NYU’s Center for Neural Science, said she was surprised by Disotell’s methods.

“It’s amazing how many species can be tracked and discovered just by extracting and sampling the environment around us,” Ng said.

Disotell showcased his passion for and knowledge of sequencing primate DNA in “10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty,” a television show that details the search for a hairy hominid called Bigfoot living in North American forests. He created a portable lab in which he sequenced DNA of collected biological samples and found that most of them were bears.

Christina Yeung, who attended the discussion, said Disotell’s research is evidence that technology is quickly advancing.

“It’s amazing that technology has brought us this far as opposed to [believing] the whole bigfoot scam,” Yeung said. “What they have in [the Center for Genomics and Systems Biology] is incredible.”

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, May 1 print edition. Claire Scimeca is a contributing writer. Email her at news@nyunews.com.

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