First results from the 100 Island Challenge
(Featured photo credit: Stefani Gordon.)
In a study published recently in Coral Reefs, scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego created and analyzed detailed photomosaics of the coral reef at Palmyra Atoll, and made surprising discoveries around coral spatial ecology. The scientists, led by graduate student Clinton Edwards, canvassed more than 17,000 square feet of reef, and 44,008 coral colonies, taking more than 39,000 images that were then stitched together to create 3D photomosaics that encompassed the reef.
Edwards and his co-authors analyzed these mosaics and discovered that coral colonies on Palmyra’s reef are arranged in a non-random way. They demonstrated for the first time that corals tend to be clustered together across the reef landscape, and that the strength of this clustering is tightly linked to the specific growth and reproductive strategy used by a given coral.
Edwards said that based on what he’d observed during the many hours he’d spent analyzing the mosaics, he had a hunch they would see some evidence for non-random clustering. “I was, however, quite surprised to find so little evidence for randomness,” he said. “There is a level of mathematical texture that the eye just can’t catch and I don’t think anyone expected such consistent results.”
Stuart Sandin, a professor of marine ecology at Scripps, who is Edwards’ PhD advisor and senior author on the paper, says the mosaic technology can help scientists’ understanding of marine ecology catch up with their knowledge of terrestrial ecology.
To understand ecosystems on land, “we use aircraft-mounted cameras to take photos from ten thousand feet, and you can see where trees live and where they grow. And now satellites have even more comprehensive coverage,” Sandin said. “That’s a tremendous amount of data, and the sky’s the limit for what we analyze and what we have learned about basic and applied ecology. Now you go underwater and the spatial data are essentially absent. What can we do? You have to start by trying to map it.”
Having an understanding of the overall landscape of forests and other terrestrial ecosystems has been very valuable for conservation and management of those environments. Now, Sandin says the detailed mapping from photomosaics of coral reefs could be used in the same way for management of marine ecosystems.
“In coral reefs, one of the big worries is if a storm kills a bunch of corals, how do you get the corals back? One of the tools that we have is to plant them,” Sandin said. “One approach that people have had is to say, well, each of these coral fragments I plant could become five square meters. That means I’ll space them in a very regular way, and disperse them every couple meters.”
But based on what they now understand about coral spatial ecology, this approach could be problematic. “A forest where you plant trees too far apart, one wind storm comes through and the trees all fall over, because they depend on one another for stability. The same exact thing holds true for corals,” he said. And that’s not the only consideration. In a coral reef, as in a forest, there are rules that describe how densely or sparsely different species like to grow, how much they like being next to each other, and they often get ecological opportunities by living close to one another. The photomosaics are helping coral ecologists decode how these rules structure a reef.
Creating the photomosaics and wringing useful information out of them is a time-consuming process. During the data-gathering, the scientists generally do three dives a day, and it took more than five full days of diving to collect the images for the sixteen plots used in this study. Back in the lab, Edwards used a custom high-performance computing system to stitch together the 2,500-3,500 individual images that make up each mosaic. It takes the software several days to complete the rendering of the composite image, and around 100 hours to label and classify all the corals in each image. Then the final step is to extract the species information and analyze it, which takes another three days or so per image.
Digitization of the images is clearly the limiting step, he said. But that may change soon. “We have excellent collaborators in the computer science and engineering department at UC San Diego, and are getting close to having a computer assisted workflow that will dramatically accelerate this process,” Edwards said.
Vid Petrovic, a computer science PhD student in Professor Falko Kuester’s lab in the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, created the software that Sandin’s team uses to visualize their 3D models, and is working on creating a custom software for this purpose.
“More and more imagery is being collected across the field of marine sciences, and the pace and scale of the effort will only increase–but more data doesn’t automatically mean more, or better science,” Petrovic said. “It’s an honor and a joy to be working so closely with a group of marine ecologists to address this, developing collaboratively the tools and workflows that are needed to make productive use of the imagery, whether for monitoring reef health, or for advancing basic science.”
Petrovic says the team is making it possible for scientists to virtually explore reefs in the lab, allowing them to time-travel from year to year and track the growth and decline of individual colonies, and to study spatial and temporal relationships across the reef.
“We’re speeding up the digitization and annotation, and clearing a path to letting machine-learning techniques carry more of this burden,” Petrovic said. “This is all terribly exciting, and with much more to come. But the most rewarding aspect for me is the interdisciplinary collaboration that makes it possible in the first place, that lets us apply a decade of visualization research in support of vital ecological work.”
Edwards, Sandin, and their collaborators say they expect the photomosaic technology to lead to many more scientific discoveries, and to continue to aid in conservation efforts. The data collected on the Palmyra reef is part of the 100 Island Challenge, the goal of which is to create a global perspective on how coral reefs are changing over time.
The 100 Island Challenge team, comprised of postdoctoral researchers, staff, and graduate students from the labs of Sandin and Scripps ecologist Jennifer Smith, is partnering with scientists and communities around the world to visit 100 different islands and use these novel 3-D imaging techniques to create photo mosaics capturing every detail of the coral reef structure and ecology. So far the team has visited almost 70 of the islands to capture mosaics, with a schedule to resurvey each site after two years. Back in the lab, they will analyze the mosaics to see how the reefs are changing over time, and how the variation of ocean conditions and human activities impact each reef. These images will also become baseline data for local agencies to use to study their own reefs.
“What really excited me about the large-area photomosaic approach is that it basically lets you take the reef home with you,” Edwards said. “When you are diving there are so many practical constraints to what you can do. You’re limited by air, currents, surface conditions, and sometimes you don’t have the opportunity to stop and smell the roses.”
He said that being able to spend hours slowly moving over the reef, carefully looking at thousands of individual corals, helps him see things that he would never have been able to observe in the field. “I’ve learned a lot while diving and would never trade those experiences, but the majority of my insights have come in front of a computer while digitizing these images,” he said.
“It’s exactly this opportunity for new observations and new insights that is necessary to propel science forward,” Edwards added. “I’m truly honored and excited to be a part of it.”
This study was a part of the Reefs Tomorrow Initiative funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
Real-time Whale Detection Buoy Near the Massachusetts Wind Energy Area
Mark F. Baumgartner
Tenured Associate Scientist, Biology Department
As we move into a future that will include more alternative sources of energy, there is significant concern about the impact of the survey and construction phases of wind energy development on endangered large whales, such as the North Atlantic right whale. Mitigation of these impacts likely will be required as part of the regulatory environmental compliance requirements, and the use of near real-time passive acoustics to alert developers to the presence of whales may be part of an effective mitigation strategy. Mark Baumgartner, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) has developed technology to detect, classify, and report the sounds of large whales in near real-time from a variety of autonomous platforms, including buoys moored to the seafloor.
Baumgartner’s team deployed two whale-detection buoys eight miles southwest of Nomans Land Island off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard on the northern fringe of the Massachusetts Wind Energy Area (MWEA), a site under consideration for a wind energy facility. With funds from the Vetlesen Foundation, Baumgartner has been analyzing the data collected by the buoys to evaluate the accuracy of the system and characterize the detection ranges for humpback, sei, fin and North Atlantic right whales using hydrophone arrays capable of localizing individual whale calls. Once the system’s performance and detection range are fully characterized then integrated into a mitigation strategy, this whale monitoring technology will help to reduce the impact of wind energy development activities on large whales passing through the area.
MIAMI – A scientist at the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science is leading an upcoming international research campaign to study a significant contributor to regional climate warming – smoke. The first-of-its-kind research experiment begins on June 1, 2016 from Ascension Island in the southeastern Atlantic Ocean. The experiment, called LASIC (Layered Atlantic Smoke Interactions with Clouds), is part of a broader international scientific collaboration led by the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility deployment. The broad collaboration is detailed in a new article in the July Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.
Southern Africa is the world’s largest emitter of smoke particles in the atmosphere, known as biomass-burning aerosols, from the burning of grasslands and other biomass. The project will help researchers better understand the effects of widespread biomass burning on Earth’s climate.
The study will investigate how smoke particles flowing far offshore from the African continent affect the remote and cloudy southeast Atlantic climate. Smoke, which absorbs sunlight, is a warming agent in the climate system when located above a bright surface, such as clouds. The smoke overlying the southeast Atlantic provides one of the largest aerosol-based warming of climate on the planet, since the region is also home to one of the largest low-cloud decks on the planet.
“Ascension Island is an ideal location since it is very remote and allows us to sample the smoke after it is well-aged, about which less is known,” said Paquita Zuidema, professor of atmospheric sciences at the UM Rosenstiel School and principal investigator of the research experiment. The long deployment time will allow us to characterize the marine low clouds both with and without the presence of smoke. This is ultimately valuable for understanding the Earth’s energy balance.”
By evaluating how the low clouds respond to the presence of sunlight-absorbing aerosols, scientists can better understand low cloud behavior, which is currently an uncertainty in model predictions of future climate, since no fundamental theory on low cloud processes is yet in place.
Low clouds dominate the atmosphere over the southeast Atlantic Ocean all year. Bright white cloud appears darker when viewed from above when smoke is present. The southeast Atlantic overall is brighter, not darker when smoke is present, suggesting that the clouds become thicker and more extensive when smoke is present.
Zuidema received a $365,050 seed grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to plan the study. And a $440,225 grant from NASA which further supports related aircraft investigations as part of the NASA Earth Venture Suborbital-2 ORACLES project.
NASA will complement the DOE surface-based measurements with airborne experiments during a month of each year in 2016-2018. This will allow researchers to take airborne samples of smoke particles as it ages, information that will improve satellite retrievals of this mixed smoke-cloud regime. The United Kingdom will also participate with its research aircraft, and French, Namibian, and South African scientists will collect and interpret aircraft and ground-based measurements closer to the Namibian coast.
The UM Rosenstiel School-led research team will study how smoke is transported through the atmosphere and across the Atlantic, how the aerosols change when transported, and the response of the low-lying clouds to the smoke. The information from the experiments will ultimately be used to improve global aerosol models and climate change forecasts.
Through the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Sarah Schooler, ’15, spent six weeks in the Alaskan bush, collecting the same data in the field she’d been studying in the classroom: salmon and the hungry habits of grizzly bears.
“Male, brain, body.”
Seven days a week, Sarah Schooler, ’15, suits up in chest-high waders, grabs her bear spray, hops a boat, and walks the length of Lake Aleknagik’s Hansen Creek, counting and categorizing every dead sockeye salmon she happens upon, calling out the sex followed by the parts of the body that were consumed.
Brain, body, belly, hump.
Some salmon are floating lifelessly downstream, carried away from the hordes pushing the opposite direction — upstream — to spawn. Others have washed ashore the gravel banks, while countless others have been littered across “bear kitchens” — flat spots among the tall grass where the sheer size (and constant presence) of a grizzly has matted down the earth.
Another student quickly scribbles the data, while Schooler hooks what’s left of the salmon with a gaff and chucks it to the side of the stream, essentially wiping the carnage clean so she can collect a new set of data the next day. At random, Sarah tags the jaws of the dead to see if bears return to snack on the parts of the fish they passed on before — maybe they took a bite of the belly then left the rest — noting the GPS coordinates.
On an “easy” day, walking the mile-and-a-half-long stream takes maybe an hour and a half. On a heavy kill day? The process of working through hundreds of fish takes more like seven or eight hours.
And that’s life for a student, like Schooler, spending a summer collecting data in the greater Bristol Bay watershed through the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences’ Alaska Salmon Program — the world’s longest-running effort to monitor salmon and their ecosystems.
Learn more about Sarah Schooler’s project and see the results of her research at the University of Washington website.
After finishing his PhD in 1974, Sparks worked with colleagues to model eruptive processes during stints at Lancaster University in Britain and the University of Rhode Island. In a 1977 study inNature, he showed how magma deep within the earth could mix with material closer to the surface to trigger an explosive eruption. Working with physicist Lionel Wilson, he explained how explosions sometimes shoot ash high into the stratosphere, but at other times unleash deadly flows of ash and gas down the flanks of volcanoes. He went on to show in Icelandic volcanoes that the sideways flow of magma could cause the spectacular collapse of a caldera up to 40 miles away. Off the coast of Greece, his analysis of deep-sea volcanic rocks added support for the idea that the Thera eruption around 1500 BC may have influenced the fall of the ancient Minoans on the island of Crete.
Throughout the past decade, valuable strides have been made in the studies of tiger health and recovery. A major finding in tiger health research occurred in 2001, when WCS field veterinarians and molecular scientists were first to genetically characterize and discover the presence of canine distemper virus (CDV) in the rare Amur tiger (also known as the Siberian tiger). Now WCS teams are expanding their studies to better understand how the disease is spread to tigers and might impact the larger population.
Canine distemper virus is the second most common cause of infectious disease death in domestic dogs, but also poses a significant threat to endangered and non-endangered wildlife around the globe. With the pressures of habitat loss, poaching, depletion of prey species, and CDV, WCS scientists and conservationists remain tireless in their efforts to combat these risk factors and protect and grow the remaining tiger population.
It is now understood that canine distemper virus tragically causes abnormal behaviors among tigers before eventually killing them. This is a distressing realization because there are likely no more than 3,500 tigers left in the wild, and all of the living subspecies are currently listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Specifically, the Amur tiger is among the most endangered cat species on the planet, with only 400-500 individuals left across their range in the Russian Far East and China.
Since the discovery of distemper among Amur tigers, WCS has participated in further studies to delve into various transmission scenarios and impact. One study involves extracting genetic information from archived tiger tissue as well as from a variety of species in their territory. These samples are being tested and compared with the intent of pinpointing the most likely sources of infection among wild tigers. This testing is crucial in understanding the risk that the virus represents to wild tigers and local communities, and in developing methods to managing this risk, such as through the design of targeted oral vaccination programs.
WCS also participated in a study which extrapolates known CDV metrics to the larger tiger population. While the illness has been shown to lead to the deaths of individual tigers, its long-term impacts on tiger populations had never before been studied. The authors evaluated impacts on the Amur tiger population in Russia’s Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Zapovednik (SABZ), where tiger numbers declined from 38 individuals to 9 in the years 2007 to 2012. In 2009 and 2010, six adult tigers died or disappeared from the reserve, and CDV was confirmed in two dead tigers—leading scientists to believe that the disease likely played a role in the overall decline of the population. Using models, scientists were able to simulate the effects of the infection on isolated tiger populations of various sizes through various transmission scenarios. The study found that smaller populations of tigers are more vulnerable to extinction by CDV. Populations consisting of 25 individuals were 1.65 times more likely to decline in the next 50 years when the distemper virus was present. This was an alarming finding given that more than half the world’s tigers in 2010 were limited to populations of less than 25 individuals.
The results are alarming, but will allow teams to plan conservation strategies that address the finding and design new conservation approaches.
While canine distemper virus has presented an additional concern in tiger repopulation efforts, WCS has seen great success in the reintroduction of orphaned and rehabilitated tiger cubs back into the wild. In the spring of 2014, five young tigers were released into the wilderness of the Russian Far East as part of WCS’s effort to recolonize lost Amur habitat.
As studies increase our knowledge of the threats facing tigers and reintroduction efforts show success there continues to be greater hope for the overall survival of the species.
Undersea glider “Anna” headed offshore Bermuda during Hurricane Gonzalo this week and straight into storm-swept seas, offering BIOS researchers a rare opportunity to measure what happens under the surface during a powerful storm. Anna’s recorded data showed cooling temperatures in the upper ocean, the development of strong currents, and water mixing as winds strengthened—information that will help researchers improve the accuracy of climate- and hurricane-forecasting models.
The vast reservoir of carbon stored in Arctic permafrost is gradually being converted to carbon dioxide (CO2) after entering the freshwater system in a process thought to be controlled largely by microbial activity.
However, a new study – funded by the National Science Foundation and published in the journal Science – concludes that sunlight and not bacteria is the key to triggering the production of CO2 from material released by Arctic soils.
The finding is particularly important, scientists say, because climate change could affect when and how permafrost is thawed, which begins the process of converting the organic carbon into CO2.
“Arctic permafrost contains about half of all the organic carbon trapped in soil on the entire Earth – and equals an amount twice of that in the atmosphere,” said Byron Crump, an Oregon State University microbial ecologist and co-author on the Science study. “This represents a major change in thinking about how the carbon cycle works in the Arctic.”
Converting soil carbon to carbon dioxide is a two-step process, notes Rose Cory, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Michigan, and lead author on the study. First, the permafrost soil has to thaw and then bacteria must turn the carbon into greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide or methane. While much of this conversion process takes place in the soil, a large amount of carbon is washed out of the soils and into rivers and lakes, she said.
“It turns out, that in Arctic rivers and lakes, sunlight is faster than bacteria at turning organic carbon into CO2,” Cory said. “This new understanding is really critical because if we want to get the right answer about how the warming Arctic may feedback to influence the rest of the world, we have to understand the controls on carbon cycling.
“In other words, if we only consider what the bacteria are doing, we’ll get the wrong answer about how much CO2 may eventually be released from Arctic soils,” Cory added.
The research team measured the speed at which both bacteria and sunlight converted dissolved organic carbon into carbon dioxide in all types of rivers and lakes in the Alaskan Arctic, from glacial-fed rivers draining the Brooks Range to tannin-stained lakes on the coastal plain. Measuring these processes is important, the scientists noted, because bacteria types and activities are variable and the amount of sunlight that reaches the carbon sources can differ by body of water.
In virtually all of the freshwater systems they measured, however, sunlight was always faster than bacteria at converting the organic carbon into CO2.
“This is because most of the fresh water in the Arctic is shallow, meaning sunlight can reach the bottom of any river – and most lakes – so that no dissolved organic carbon is kept in the dark,” said Crump, an associate professor in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “Also, there is little shading of rivers and lakes in the Arctic because there are no trees.”
Another factor limiting the microbial contribution is that bacteria grow more slowly in these cold, nutrient-rich waters.
“Light, therefore, can have a tremendous effect on organic matter,” University of Michigan’s Cory pointed out.
The source of all of this organic carbon is primarily tundra plants – and it has been building up for hundreds of thousands of years, but doesn’t completely break down immediately because of the Arctic’s cold temperatures. Once the plant material gets deep enough into the soil, the degradation stops and it becomes preserved, much like peat.
“The level of thawing only gets to be a foot deep or so, even in the summer,” Crump said. “Right now, the thaw begins not long before the summer solstice. If the seasons begin to shift with climate change – and the thaw begins earlier, exposing the organic carbon from permafrost to more sunlight – it could potentially trigger the release of more CO2.”\
The science community has not yet been able to accurately calculate how much organic carbon from the permafrost is being converted into CO2, and thus it will be difficult to monitor potential changes because of climate change, they acknowledge.
“We have to assume that as more material thaws and enters Arctic lakes and rivers, more will be converted to CO2,” Crump said. “The challenge is how to quantify that.”
Some of the data for the study was made available through the National Science Foundation’s Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research project, which has operated in the Arctic for nearly 30 years.
Other authors on the study are Collin Ward and George Kling of the University of Michigan.
The research was supported by the following National Science Foundation grants: NSF-OPP 1023270/1022876; NSF-PLR 1107593; and NSF DEB-1026843 and 1147378/1347042.
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.
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.