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NEWS

The phrase, ‘Eat your vitamins,’ applies to marine animals just like humans. Many vitamins are elusive in the ocean environment. University of Washington researchers used new tools to measure and track B-12 vitamins in the ocean. Once believed to be manufactured only by marine bacteria, the new results show that a whole different class of […]

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The phrase, ‘Eat your vitamins,’ applies to marine animals just like humans. Many vitamins are elusive in the ocean environment.

University of Washington researchers used new tools to measure and track B-12 vitamins in the ocean. Once believed to be manufactured only by marine bacteria, the new results show that a whole different class of organism, archaea, can supply this essential vitamin. The results were presented Feb. 24 at the Ocean Sciences meeting in Honolulu.

“The dominant paradigm has been bacteria are out there, making B-12, but it turns out that one of the most common marine bacteria doesn’t make it,” said Anitra Ingalls, a UW associate professor of oceanography.

All marine animals, some marine bacteria and some tiny marine algae, or phytoplankton, need B-12, but only some microbes can produce the large, complex molecule. So like human vegetarians on land, marine organisms may be scouring for food that can help stave off vitamin deficiency.

“If only certain bacteria can make B vitamins, that can make B-12 a controlling factor in the environment. Is it present or not?” said Katherine Heal, a UW oceanography graduate student. “Studying the marine microbiome can help us understand what microbial communities could be supported where, and how that affects things like the ocean’s capacity to absorb atmospheric CO2.”

The UW team is the first to show that marine archaea, a single-celled organism that evolved totally separate from bacteria and all other living things, are making B-12. Relatives of these tiny critters are known for unusual behavior like living inside hot springs and underwater volcanoes.

The Seattle team managed to grow a common type of open-ocean archaea in the lab, no mean feat, and show that it not only makes enough B-12 to support its own growth but can supply some to the environment.

“It’s hard to quantify their contribution,” Ingalls said. “This is a first glimpse at their potential to contribute to this pool of vitamins.”

The analysis was done at a new UW marine chemistry center that does detailed analysis of proteins and other carbon-based chemicals in the ocean. The researchers used high-tech tools, including liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, to identify the tiny amount of vitamins among all the dissolved matter and salt in the seawater. The UW method is unique in that it is the only one that can distinguish among the four forms of B-12 vitamins.

Field experiments involved sampling seawater in Hood Canal, near Seattle, and in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles offshore. The results showed that B-12 was present in small amounts in all water samples. Concentrations were low enough in some places that vitamin deficiency among tiny marine algae, or phytoplankton, is likely.

“Having a very small amount doesn’t mean there’s a very small supply,” Ingalls said. “Low concentrations can indicate something that’s highly desirable to marine organisms.”

The next step, researchers said, is to connect different microbes’ activity with the production of B vitamins, to see which organisms are responsible where, and to look at how ocean vitamins affect the type and amount of phytoplankton growing in the water.

Recent sequencing of the genomes of marine microbes has revealed genetic pathways in bacteria and archaea for creating B vitamins, but just because the gene is there doesn’t mean it’s being used. Marine microbes often adapt their behavior depending on the environment. In the case of vitamins, some bacteria make more B-12 if a phytoplankton is nearby, supporting their eventual food source.

Making a B-12 vitamin, which has a metal core and complex surrounding structure, involves 30-some steps.

“People think that’s why many organisms have lost it from their genomes,” Heal said. “It’s just too expensive to make it, and it’s easier to get it from food.”

The UW team hopes to learn which microbes are producing B-12 vitamins where, to better understand how the base of the marine food web works, how it might alter in a changing environment, how oceans might help regulate atmospheric carbon dioxide, and where marine animals could go to get a well-balanced diet.

“The public really has a very strange relationship to microorganisms,” Ingalls said. “People know they cause disease, so they want to kill them. But they’re also the only reason that we – or whales, fish or coral reefs – are alive.”

Collaborators are David Stahl, E. Virginia Armbrust, Allan Devol, Wei Qin and Laura Carlson at the UW, James Moffett at the University of Southern California and Willow Coyote, an undergraduate from Evergreen State College who will also present a poster at the meeting.

NEWS

The Wildlife Conservation Society is partnering with the government of Mozambique, Paul G. Allen, and USAID to conduct a national elephant survey to collect data essential to protecting Mozambique’s highly threatened and diminishing savannah elephant population. The survey is a part of the Great Elephant Census—an effort to count savannah elephant populations across sub-Saharan Africa […]

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The Wildlife Conservation Society is partnering with the government of Mozambique, Paul G. Allen, and USAID to conduct a national elephant survey to collect data essential to protecting Mozambique’s highly threatened and diminishing savannah elephant population.

The survey is a part of the Great Elephant Census—an effort to count savannah elephant populations across sub-Saharan Africa in response to the current escalating wave of poaching sweeping across Africa. The census will provide an essential baseline of data that can be used to inform conservation approaches toward protecting Africa’s savannah elephants.

The Mozambique survey is taking place in October 2014 and results will be available in early 2015. WCS will use three four-seater Cessna aircraft to fly over six protected areas and three other regions. Examiners in the plane will count both live elephants and elephant carcasses to understand the rate of poaching. Other large wildlife such as zebra and buffalo will be counted within the Niassa National Reserve.

“While I am aware that this survey very likely could bring shocking news about elephant numbers in Mozambique, I know that the results are critical to providing the hard data that the Government of Mozambique and conservation partners, including WCS, need to be effective,” said Alastair Nelson, Director of the WCS Mozambique Program. “WCS thanks the Government of Mozambique, Paul G. Allen, and USAID for coming together to make the survey happen.”

The last national elephant count in Mozambique was done six years ago in 2008 and put the total elephant population at 22,000. Within the Niassa National Reserve, which is home to Mozambique’s largest elephant population in the remote far north of the country, more than 4,000 elephants have been killed since 2010. The last count in Niassa was in late 2011, and at that time, an estimated 12,000 elephants were living in the reserve.

There is ample evidence to show that the continent-wide elephant poaching crisis is primarily affecting Mozambique. It is estimated that 100,000 elephants have been killed across Africa in the last three years alone, primarily by organized criminal networks that are also negatively impacting the security, governance, and development potential of local communities and African nations. Niassa Reserve has not been spared—one to two elephants are killed each day at the hands of these criminals, who enter the reserve armed with hunting rifles and AK-47s.

In western Mozambique, poachers are poisoning waterholes to kill elephants, a tactic which also kills all other wildlife. This is the same devastating practice that has been reported from neighboring Zimbabwe.

“We need this survey to count the live elephants and the carcasses,” said Nelson. “This information will help us know the actual population numbers, and where the elephants are getting hammered. Other information, such as the ratios of carcasses to live animals, of males to females, and of adults to juveniles will help us to understand what is happening in each elephant population. This will allow the Mozambican Government, WCS, and other conservation partners, to allocate our scarce resources for maximum impact. This, and other recent action, is the start of turning things around in Mozambique.”

By the end of 2014, the Great Elephant Census will have surveyed elephants in 18 countries, covering more than 80 percent of the savannah elephant range with the aim of counting 90 percent of Africa savannah elephants.

Altogether 50 scientists will complete thousands of aerial transects over 600,000 kilometers. In addition to the Wildlife Conservation Society, many African governments, the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, African Parks, Frankfurt Zoological Society, Elephants Without Borders, and Save the Elephants are participating in the survey. Survey teams will also explore how new technologies can improve on current aerial survey methods and allow for enhanced data gathering.