Fun Science FRIEDay – Harnessing Synthetic Biology to Fight Ocean Pollution

Plastics, more importantly microplastics, clog our oceans. This phenomena in the ocean has been likened to smog around cities. These plastic particles are dangerous because they can absorb toxins, subsequently be consumed by zooplankton and invertebrates, and bioaccumluate up the food web to fish that are consumed by humans. A study in Nature found that 25 percent of seafood sold contains microplastics! There has been a recent awareness of the unseen harm that exists when plastic pollution in the ocean degrades into microplastics. A report in Environmental Research Letters estimated that “accumulated number of micro plastic particles… ranges from 15 to 51 trillion particles, weighing between 93 and 236 thousand metric tons.” That is cray cray. Despite a better awareness of the impact of microplastics on marine ecology, we still have a poor spatial understanding of microplastics in the ocean. The presence and density of microplastics is determined by trawling the ocean (i.e., researchers go out with a net and physically count the pieces of plastic they pick up). As you can imagine, this is not very effective.

Conceptualization of plastic degrading in the ocean. (Photo credit: Archipelagos Institute)

Read More

The Worlds First Empirical ‘How-To’ Get Into Graduate School Book

Many years ago as a graduate student at the College of William & Mary, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, my former officemate (Noelle Relles) and I came up with a novel idea: take all the disparate information out there about strategies for getting into graduate school in the natural sciences and coalesce them into a single concise yet comprehensive text. Essentially develop a How-To book about graduate school. But we wanted the book to be more than just instructional anecdotes. We were scientist, and thought it would be useful to add a level of empiricism to the book. We wanted to write a How-To book where the conclusion were driven by results from a national survey of graduate admissions offices in the USA. At the time, writing a book based on a national survey of graduate programs seemed like quite a long-shot as we were both a number of years removed from getting our PhDs, and the most pressing issues in our lives at that time were graduating and finding free food and alcohol.

Living the life of a graduate student at VIMS’ infamous Fall Party. (Photo credit: Kersey Sturdivant)

Read More

Fun Science FRIEDay – Water to Wine? Close, CO2 to Alcohol (ethanol)

Science brings us many wonderful things (honestly if you enjoy the benefits of the modern era, go out and hug a scientist). One of humanities age old desires is the ability to convert something invaluable, or a nuisance, into something desirable. The old midas touch if you will. Recently some scientist stumbled onto the process of converting CO2, a primary culprit of anthropogenic climate change, into alcohol… though not the kind you drink, the kind that humanity could use as fuel.

(Photo credit: Getty + Space Images)

(Photo credit: Getty + Space Images)

Producing fuel from CO2 is huge because it lets us take a nuisance compound, and converts it into a productive one. This was accomplished by scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee by using common materials (copper and carbon), but arranging them with nanotechnology. The researchers were attempting to find a series of chemical reactions that could turn CO2 into a useful fuel, such as ethanol. They figured they would go from CO2 to methanol, and then work out the logistics of going from methanol to ethanol, when they realized the first step in their process managed to do it all by itself. Science for the win!

Read More

Fun Science FRIEDay – Visualize the Seafloor

Happy FSF! As some of you may know (and for those who don’t), I study the bottom of the ocean, and I do so primarily using innovative technology to image the seafloor (e.g., Wormcam). The interesting work I’ve conducted has resulted in me having the opportunity to present my work to a larger lay audience, in the form of a TEDx presentation.

(Photo Credit: TEDx Newport)

(Photo Credit: TEDx Newport)

I am giving my TED talk with my good buddy and colleague Steve Sabo.  In our talk, “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Worms”, Steve & I will illustrate the significance of the ocean floor through advancements in underwater camera technology and data visualization, making complex science more accessible for everyone.

Our TED photo (Photo credit: Meg Heriot)

Our TED photo (Photo credit: Meg Heriot)

Read More

Fun Science FRIEDay – Underwater World of Pollination

Pollination. I think most people understand why this is important (or maybe I should say, I hope). To put it simply, the process of pollination facilitates reproduction in plants by transferring pollen from one plant to another. In the terrestrial world, this can be mediated by physical forcing (e.g., wind) or by animals (e.g., insects) – and its why people are freaking out about the loss of bees due to pesticides (because they are a primary pollinator), but I digress. Until relatively recently, pollination by animals was not thought to occur in the ocean. Unlike on land, where most flowering plants rely on creatures to carry pollen, plant reproduction in an aquatic world was surmised to rely exclusively on currents and tides. However, a team of researchers led by marine biologist Brigitta van Tussenbroek revoked the long standing paradigm that pollen in the sea is transported only by water, discovering and documenting the process of zoobenthophilous pollination (a term they coined).

Gamarid amphipod feeding on pollen or mucilage of a male flower of the seagrass Thalassia testudinum at night. (Photo credit: Tussenbroek et al. 2012)

Gamarid amphipod feeding on pollen of a male
flower of the seagrass Thalassia testudinum at night. (Photo credit: Tussenbroek et al. 2012)

Read More

Fun Science FRIEDay – Drug Resistant Bacteria, The Movie

In today’s FSF we bring you both a jaw dropping, and somewhat terrifying cinematic visualization of how bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics, and overtime can become super bugs immune to any antibiotic treatment.  A concise and detailed description is presented below:

This stunning video of evolution in action captures how bacteria with no resistance to an antibiotic can in a very short time become resistant to concentrations of more than a thousand times the initial concentration. Other scientists have documented this phenomenon before, but never with such vivid clarity as that provided by Michael Bay and Roy Kishony of Harvard University.

Read More

Fun Science FRIEDay – Shark Daycare

A great white shark nursery in the North Atlantic that was discovered in 1985 south of Cape Cod in the waters off Montauk, New York  has received renewed attention due to the increased activity of white sharks off cape cod in recent years. The nursery was first documented in 1985 by Casey and Pratt who deduced the presence of a nursery based on the number of juvenile sightings and landings in the area. This work was followed up recently  by OCEARCH (an organization dedicated to generating scientific data related to tracking/telemetry and biological studies of keystone marine species such as great white sharks), which tagged and tracked nine infant great whites to the nursery, located a few miles off Montauk.

Great White Shark. Image courtesy animals.NationalGeographic.com

Great White Shark. Image courtesy animals.NationalGeographic.com

Photo of a great white shark in Mexico by Terry Goss, WikiMedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White_shark.jpg

Photo of a great white shark in Mexico by Terry Goss, WikiMedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White_shark.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read More

Fun Science FRIEDay – Glaciers Lost in Time

Human induced climate change is real. It feels weird that I have to say that, but the overwhelming body of evidence suggest human activity post the industrial revolution is having irrevocable damage on our environment. One of the major implications of climate change is the loss of the polar glaciers (and subsequent sea level rise).

Danish researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University photographed glaciers in east Greenland in 2010 from the same vantage point used by scientists in 1933. Below you can contrast the images from the Mittivakkat and Tunu glaciers to see how much the two glaciers have retreated due to the warming climate (Photo Credit: Natural History Museum of Denmark; Hans Henrik Tholstrup/Natural History Museum of Denmark).

The Mittivakkat Glacier

The Mittivakkat Glacier in 1933.

The Mittivakkat Glacier in 1933.

Read More

Fun Science FRIEDay – Open-Acess Science for the Masses

The oceans belong to all of us. With this simple statement in mind, the Oceanography for Everyone (OfE) project was launched with the goal of making ocean science more accessible. One of the biggest hurdles in conducting ocean science is instrumentation costs, and 4 years ago the OfE team began trying to make one of the most basic ocean science tools, the CTD (a water quality sensor that measures Conductivity-Temperature-Depth), cheaper… much, much cheaper!

Read More

The Importance of Scientific Discovery and Communication for a General Science Audience

The impetus for this piece was an essay I wrote for iBiology a year or so ago discussing the importance of scientific discovery for a a general science audience (i.e., our science peers who are not in our respective field). I was excited to write the piece because a lot of the Science FRIEDay articles I write focus on relatively recent scientific discoveries, and this article is more of an opinion piece. So why is scientific discovery important for an audience of science peers who do not explicitly work in our specific field?

It is easy to marvel at the wonders that exist on our planet and in the surrounding universe, the known discoveries. As a natural scientist, I also appreciate the beauty in the hidden mysteries of the natural world, those processes, behaviors, and functions that we have yet to elucidate. The notion and concept of scientific discovery is romanticized as a purist’s deed. Edwin Hubble said it best, “Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls that adventure Science.” A scientist’s basal desire is to further the state of knowledge, but equally we crave information about the fields of knowledge that are expanding around us, of which we are not explicitly involved. We aspire to understand the “99%”, at the very least surficially. The importance of this desire explains why scientific conferences play a major role in our profession, and journals such as Science and Nature are so popular. Yes, we as scientist want to share our new discoveries, but we are also equally as intrigued about what others have accomplished; we want to know how science is progressing outside of our bubble, especially those really groundbreaking feats. These coupled characteristics are a necessary component of science. Hearing and learning about the work of others fuels one’s own scientific passions to go and do more, and can often challenge an individual to think more creatively about their own research ideas and approaches. To a general audience of our scientific peers, sharing scientific discovery temporarily satiates the yearning that scientists have about the progression of knowledge, but also can serve as motivation and inspiration.
Read More