Have you ever thought about testing your DNA through companies like 23andMe or Ancestry.com? 

Geneticists here in Alaska are using that same technology on fish, but they're not looking for their ancestors. Instead, they're using it to trace back where marine species are born and where they're caught. 

The administrative headquarters for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game off of Raspberry Road in Anchorage is best known as an office building, but tucked inside is one of the most advanced genetics labs on the Pacific Rim.

"We have one instrument in particular that is the same instrument that is used by 23andMe and Ancestry.com," said lab supervisor Heather Hoyt. 

But unlike those organizations, its not human DNA that Hoyt and her team are testing. They're focused mainly on fish. 

Genetic information about salmon in southeast Alaska, for example, plays an important role in negotiations like the Pacific Rim Treaty between Alaska and Canada. The fish swim across country borders, so each side has a limited number they're allowed to harvest from either stock.

"What geneticists' role is is to help see who's catching what, when [they catch it] and where [they catch it]," explained Kyle Shedd, a fisheries geneticist, who oversees department projects in the southeastern part of the state. "Within the treaty there's a lot of politics and controversy about who's catching what, and we're kind of the truth of who's catching what."

The data also helps Fish and Game keep tabs on local fish populations, so it can trace back vulnerable species for more targeted fishery closures.

"We want to keep people fishing as much as they possibly can," Shedd said. 

Getting that kind of data takes teamwork, and the sample goes through multiple layers of processing, which can range from a matter of hours to months, depending on the time of year. But once that's done, geneticists can read DNA like a book.

"Really, we're just looking at what does this population at this location look like, with a certain set of markers. And what does this population look like at this location with this set of markers? And can we tell the difference apart from each other?" Hoyt explained. 

Those kinds of clues help scientists piece together answers about where each creature came from, and allow scientists to see beneath the surface, to read what's going on in Alaska waters.

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