Saving Samples for the Sea Turtles

lil turt and me

Photo Cred: Kaylie Anne Costa

Kelly Townsend, Elmhurst College

Findings: What an amazing summer this has been! I have been working to discover the quality and stability of RNA and plasma proteins from loggerhead sea turtle blood in different storage conditions. The results have showed that plasma proteins are quite stable while RNA degrades at a much higher rate. Therefore, we were able to conclude that samples that have been stored for many years are still viable for plasma protein analysis but not RNA analysis.

Throughout the summer, I have participated in many amazing opportunities to explore different field work and sampling techniques. I was fortunate enough to go on a four day cruise to do a health assessment of juvenile and adult loggerheads, volunteer on a turtle nesting beach to survey the loggerhead nests, and have a behind the scenes tour of the turtle hospital located at the Charleston aquarium. Even though my research pertained to turtles, I was also able to go shark lil turttagging for a day. Each experience has taught me something new and I have loved every minute of it.

During this project, I have also acquired new lab techniques and life skills that will make me a better scientist. Working alongside my mentors who are a part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), I learned meaningful organizational and professional skills that I will be able to apply in any lab I work in. I have also learned new techniques in the lab involving new instruments that I have never used before this summer. All this new knowledge will greatly help me throughout my career. Overall, I had an awesome experience conducting research this summer and I have acquired so much new knowledge to apply in my life.

A huge thank you to Dr. Jennifer Lynch, Jennifer Trevillian, and Jennifer Ness with the National Institute of Standards and Technology for being my supportive and fantastic mentors. I would not have been able to complete this project and have amazing opportunities without them. This project was made possible by the samples collected by Dr. Michael Arendt and the funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF DBI-1757899) supported by the Fort Johnson REU program.

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Methods for the Manatees

Kaylie Anne Costa, University of Miami

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The Approach: In my previous post, I described cold stress syndrome (CSS) in Florida manatees and the major threat it poses to the survival of this integral species. To expand the current scientific knowledge of CSS, I will be analyzing the lipids (aka fats) and metabolites, which are the products remaining after biological processes such as digestion, respiration, and maintenance of homeostasis, in 12 healthy and 21 CSS-affected manatee plasma samples in hopes of learning more about the metabolism of this condition and potential avenues for therapeutic applications.

In order to study the lipids and metabolites in manatee blood, I will be using liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry (LC/MS) with an electrospray ionization source. Metabolomics and lipidomics will be separately analyzed. After a chemical extraction is performed to selectively separate either the lipids or metabolites in the plasma, each extract will be individually injected into the chromatographic column to separate the chemical compounds present so that only similar compounds are analyzed in any moment of time (methodology proposed by Bligh & Dyer, 1959 and Cambridge Isotope Laboratories, Inc.). Once the separated compounds reach the end of the column, they are

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Rescued manatee showing signs of cold stress syndrome. (Photo from: https://savethemanateenewtech.weebly.com/endangerment.html)

transferred to the electrospray ion source where a high temperature and voltage will be applied to evaporate the solvent and give the compounds a charge to form ions that are then directed into the mass spectrometer. Within the mass spectrometer, the ions will first be filtered by electric fields to remove anything other than either lipids or metabolites and then detected by mass to charge ratio. The most abundant ions will be fragmented and the mass to charge ration of the fragments will also be detected using an MS/MS scan. To see an animation of the flow of ions through the mass spectrometer, please click the following hyperlink: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_A6NBBBcdts

As a result of the above processes, retention times for each ion are displayed in a graphical form called a chromatogram and the mass spectrum is recorded. Since the masses and retention times will not change between scans, these parameters for each ion can be matched to known databases of known lipids and metabolites. By applying multivariate statistics, we can determine if there is a difference in the lipids and/or metabolites in the plasma of manatees with CSS compared to healthy manatees.

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The top left graph shows a chromatogram. The highlighted peak is then shown on the mass spectrum below with a mass to charge ratio (m/z) of 760.58607. By locating this m/z and the m/z of its fragments in the mass spectrum of a MS/MS scan and matching the values with a database, we know the original peak represents Phosphatidylcholine (16:0_18:1).                                        (Graphic by Dr. Mike Napolitano)

The goal of my project is to see if CSS alters the lipid and metabolite contents of manatee plasma. If differences exist, I will study them to learn more about the progression of cold stress syndrome in manatees and the particular systems and metabolic pathways that are affected. It is our hope that this information leads to developing both diagnostic and treatment options for these animals thereby reducing the impacts of this syndrome.


A huge thank you goes to my mentor Dr. John Bowden and co-mentor Dr. Mike Napolitano as well as everyone at NIST, HML, and Fort Johnson for all of their help and guidance. I would also like to thank the National Science Foundation for funding and the Fort Johnson REU program for making this research possible (NSF DBI-1757899).


References:

Bligh, E. G., & Dyer, W. J. (1959). A rapid method of total lipid extraction and

purification.Canadian journal of biochemistry and physiology, 37(8), 911-917.

Cambridge Isotope Laboratories, Inc. Metabolomics QC Kit For Untargeted/Targeted Mass

Spectrometry: User’s Manual. Tewksbury, MA: Author.

The Search for High Quality Data

Kelly Townsend, Elmhurst College

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Photo Cred: Ashley Shaw

The Approach: In my previous post, I mentioned the importance of sea turtles to ecosystems and ecotourism. While very important, the populations of these endangered animals are declining largely due to human impacts on our oceans. Headlines of sea turtles washing up on shore from such things as being strangled by plastic or boat strikes is no new occurrence. Since sea turtles are declining for reasons largely caused by us, so it is up to us to save these beloved animals. This study aims to investigate the stability of two important health indices, RNA and plasma protein in sea turtle blood, at different temperature treatments over time.  These indices are frequently used by researchers to answer health related questions. Therefore, my study will hopefully aid other researchers in determining if their samples are of the right quality to measure these indices.

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Collecting blood from a Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta) Photograph authorized by NMFS Section 10(A)(1)(a) permit 19621

For this project, whole blood was obtained from loggerhead sea turtles off the coast of South Carolin. The blood was collected in either Vacutainer blood collection tubes containing sodium heparin or PAXgene tubes. Sodium heparin tubes contain an anticoagulant and are typically used for blood collection. PAXgene tubes contain an RNA preservative; therefore, are best suited for RNA analysis. The sodium heparin tubes used for plasma were centrifuged on the boat to separate the blood components (i.e, plasma, white blood, and remaining cells) while the PAXgene tubes for RNA were left unspun. Once in the lab, the tubes were divided out into approximately 1.5ml aliquots in order to subject them to different treatments. Plasma was used for the plasma protein treatments while whole blood was used for the RNA treatments. Treatments in this study included 4⁰C for seven days, 20⁰C for three days, delayed freeze time, and never frozen. There were also treatments that lasted twenty-eight days consisting of storage in cryogenic conditions (< -150⁰C), -80⁰C, and -20⁰C (frost-free and non-frost-free freezers). Once the treatments end, the plasma will be analyzed for protein concentrations via plasma electrophoresis, and the whole blood will be analyzed for RNA quality via RNA isolation followed by a bioanalyser to obtain RNA integrity numbers (RINs).

 

As a result of the study, I hope to determine the conditions at which plasma proteins and RNA are most stable and begin to lose stability in order to aid scientists with their research. By knowing these conditions, this will hopefully guide others in deciding how to store samples along with which ones are best suited for a variety of analyses. In order to help the sick and endangered sea turtles, the highest quality of research will be necessary which means high quality data. I hope this study will guide researchers to make that possible.

I would like to thank Dr. Jennifer Lynch, Jennifer Trevillian, and Jennifer Ness with the National Institute of Standards and Technology for being my supportive and awesome mentors. This project was made possible by the samples collected by Dr. Michael Arendt and the funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF DBI-1757899) supported by the Fort Johnson REU program.

Bacteria in the Ocean? That Eat Iron??

Lauren Rodgers, Rutgers University

Version 2The problem: Have you ever asked yourself, what is iron? It is an element? A rock? Some weird orange-ish substance? Is it the tool that you use to get the wrinkles out of clothes? And what does iron even do? Does it just sit there? Does anything eat it? Can we make things out of it? Iron is one of the most abundant elements on earth, yet not many people know much about the important role it plays in our lives.

Iron is more than just an element, or something found within a rock. It’s a nutrient, something necessary for the growth and metabolism of almost every living organism on Earth (Hedrich & Johnson, 2011). In the ocean, iron is found in two different forms, ferrous iron or Fe(II), which is soluble in water, and ferric iron or Fe(III), which is insoluble in water (Hedrich & Johnson, 2011). Because ferrous iron is soluble it is the form of iron that can be used by most organisms in the water (Hedrich & Johnson, 2011). This ferrous iron, however, is limited in the ocean despite its abundance in the Earth’s crust. In fact, Fe(II) is present only in incredibly small concentrations, making it a major limiting factor of growth for all of the plants and algae in the ocean. This is important because these plants and algae serve as the base of many food chains, so if there is a limitation on the growth of these organisms, it affects every other organism throughout the food chain. Though iron is an extremely important nutrient for many living organisms, it is still not well understood. One of the least understood aspects is how iron specifically cycles through different marine environments. Does it ever change form? Does anything add iron to the ocean? Does anything take iron out of the ocean? These questions bring us to Zetaproteobacteria.

Zetaproteobacteria is a recently discovered class of iron-oxidizing microbes. This just means that the bacteria eat iron in the form of Fe(II) and produce Fe(III) as a waste product (Emerson et al., 2007; Chiu et al., 2017). In fact, these waste products can take on the form of hollow tubes, also called tubular sheaths, or twisted stalks that you can see under the microscope!

 

Zetaproteobacteria were initially described in 2007 near hydrothermal vents, utilizing the large concentrations of Fe(II) that were present in the fluid that spewed from the vents (Emerson et al., 2007).

Iron Mat

Iron mat composed of Zetaproteobacteria on a lava rock near the submarine Loihi volcano. (A. Malahoff, Hawaii, Loihi Volcano, July 1988)

How do Zetaproteobacteria relate to the cycling of iron? 

Zetaproteobacteria, with their role in eating iron and transforming it from its soluble Fe(II) state into its insoluble Fe(III) form may have an important role in the cycling of iron through the environment, functioning as an important source of iron removal.

Since their discovery, Zetaproteobacteria have also been observed in many other habitats, including coastal estuarine habitats with lower levels of iron, similar to that of Charleston, SC. (Laufer et al., 2017; Chiu et al., 2017). Our study will try to identify if these Zetaproteobacteria are present in the muddy soils around Charleston, as well as measure the levels of Fe(II) and Fe(III) in the rivers where these bacteria may be found.

 

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Hopefully, through the study of the distribution of Zetaproteobacteria across the globe, including the chemical characteristics of the different environments that they inhabit, we may get a clearer picture of how iron cycles in aquatic environments and the role that these Zetaproteobacteria play.


I would like to thank my mentor, Dr. Heather Fullerton, for guiding me through this research. I would also like to thank the National Science Foundation for funding this research as well as the College of Charleston and Grice Marine Lab for their support.


References 

Chiu, B. K., Kato, S., McAllister, S. M., Field, E. K., & Chan, C. S. (2017). Novel pelagic iron-oxidizing Zetaproteobacteria from the Chesapeake Bay oxic-anoxic transition zone. Frontiers in Microbiology, 8(JUL), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2017.01280

Emerson, D., Rentz, J. A., Lilburn, T. G., Davis, R. E., Aldrich, H., Chan, C. S., & Moyer, C. L. (2007). A novel lineage of proteobacteria involved in formation of marine Fe-oxidizing microbial mat communities. PLoS ONE, 2(8), e667. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0000667

Hedrich, S., Schlömann, M., & Johnson, D. B. (2011). The iron-oxidizing proteobacteria. Microbiology,157(6), 1551–1564.

Laufer, K., Nordhoff, M., Halama, M., Martinez, R. ., Obst, M., Nowak, M., … Kappler, A. (2017). Microaerophilic Fe(II)-oxidizing Zetaproteobacteriaisolated from low-Fe marine coastal sediments – physiology and characterization of their twisted stalks. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 83(February), AEM.03118-16. https://doi.org/10.1128/AEM.03118-16

Mori, J. F., Scott, J. J., Hager, K. W., Moyer, C. L., Küsel, K., & Emerson, D. (2017). Physiological and ecological implications of an iron- or hydrogen-oxidizing member of the Zetaproteobacteria, Ghiorsea bivora, gen. nov., sp. Nov. ISME Journal, 11(11), 2624–2636. https://doi.org/10.1038/ismej.2017.132

The BMA of Today

Christine Hart, Clemson University

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In previous blog posts I described the sand-dwelling microalgae, also known as benthic microalgae (BMA), which are essential to estuary ecosystems. Not only do they produce the air we breathe and food we eat, they also inform us about the subtle changes that are occurring in our environment. Changes that otherwise may go unnoticed.

How do BMA show these environmental changes? By forming the foundation of estuarine energy, they provide a snapshot of how the estuary is functioning as a whole. If changes occur in BMA patterns, this may indicate changes in the overall ecosystem. BMA are also easily characterized and compared using modern molecular approaches. These qualities make BMA living indicators, or bioindicators, that are important in monitoring future ecosystem health.

BMA become visible in the upper layers of sediment at low tide. Later, they decrease in density—or biomass—as the tide rises. Our project studied the mechanism for the increase of biomass during low tide. Previous studies suggested that the mechanism for biomass increase is vertical migration of BMA from lower layers to upper layers of sediment. We also tested whether BMA growth due to high light exposure contributes to the biomass increase.

Our results indicated that both vertical migration and growth due to sunlight exposure were important to the increase in biomass. This is the first contribution to literature that recognizes a multifaceted approach to BMA biomass changes.

Additionally, we studied in how the biomass increase was connected to patterns in the type of BMA in Charleston Harbor. Previous studies suggested that increasing biomass was connected to changes in the abundance of BMA species; therefore, we expected to see the amount of certain BMA species change based on their exposure to migration and sunlight.

We were surprised by our findings. In this study, we found that BMA did not vary over short time periods (by tidal stage or by exposure to migration and sunlight). Instead, we found that BMA varied spatially and over a period of 6 years. In fact, only one of the dominant species of BMA remained the same from 2011 to 2017 (Figure 1).  The long-term change in community coincides with geological changes in the sampling site (Figure 2).

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Figure 1. The relative abundance of each dominant BMA species from 2011 to 2017 is shown immediately after sediment exposure (T0) and 3 hours later (TF). Only one species—Halamphora coffeaeformis—remains dominant in 2017. This is evidence of a dramatic change in the dominant type of BMA in Grice Cove.

These are positive results for the use of BMA as bioindicators. If types of BMA are invariable over short periods of time, measurements of BMA will be more precise. Bioindicators must be capable of showing changes that are occurring on a larger environmental scale; therefore, it would be a good sign if the change in BMA community reflects the changing geological environment (Figure 2). Still, more studies on the temporal and spatial patterns of BMA communities should be conducted before BMA can be used as bioindicators.

Changes in Grice Cove

Figure 2. Aerial view of Grice Cove sampling site over time. The approximate location of the sampling site is shown by the white line. Sampling sandbar has changed over time, possibly contributing to community changes. Source: “Grice Cove” 32 degrees 44’58”N 79 degrees 53’45”W. Google Earth. January 2012 to March 2014. June 20, 2017.

This study contributed new information to the studies of BMA biomass during low tide, and showed that the BMA of today in Grice Cove are significantly different than in previous years.

 

Thank you to my mentor, Dr. Craig Plante, and my co-advisor, Kristina Hill-Spanik, for their support and guidance. This project is funded through the National Science Foundation and supported by College of Charleston’s Grice Marine Laboratory.

 

Literature Cited:

Holt, E. A. & Miller, S. W. (2010) Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):8.

Lobo, E. A., Heinrich, C. G., Schuch, M., Wetzel, C. E., & Ector, L. (n.d.). Diatoms as Bioindicators in Rivers. In River Algae (pp. 245-271). Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-31984-.

MacIntyre, H.L., R.J. Geider, and D.C. Miller. 1996. Microphytobenthos: the ecological role of
 the “Secret Garden” of unvegetated, shallow-water marine habitats. I. Distribution, abundance and primary production. Estuaries 19:186-201.

Rivera-Garcia, L.G., Hill-Spanik, K.M., Berthrong, S.T., and Plante, C. J. Tidal Stage Changes in Structure and Diversity of Intertidal Benthic Diatom Assemblages: A Case Study from Two Contrasting Charleston Harbor Flats. Estuaries and Coasts. In review.

Cells and Instruments, but no Folsom Prison Blues

Brian Wuertz, Warren Wilson College

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In my previous post, “Hiding in plain sight”, I introduced DOSS, a compound that has been recently identified as a probable obesogen. We are especially concerned about the potential of this compound to cause obesity symptoms in developing children through exposure from their mothers. While DOSS is in many products we use daily, such as homogenized milk and makeup products, it is commonly prescribed to pregnant women in the form of Colace stool softener. I am investigating both how much DOSS is in certain places in the body and how it may promote obesity.

One of the main concerns about obesity is that it elevates the risk of developing other diseases such as diabetes or cancer by causing a state of chronic inflammation (Bianchini 2002).  Chronic inflammation in  adipose tissue is regulated by immune cells, including macrophages. Macrophages are immune cells found throughout the body that help to fight against infection by recognizing invading bacteria and engulfing them in a process called phagocytosis, literally meaning to eat the other cells. In addition to phagocytosis macrophages are important regulators of the larger inflammatory response by secreting proteins that tell other cells to initiate or maintain a state of inflammation (Fujiwara 2005). This inflammatory reaction may be induced by DOSS. We have seen evidence of increased inflammation and obesity in mice treated with DOSS, so in order to figure out what causes that I am focusing on macrophages because of the way they regulate inflammation.

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I am isolating macrophages from breast milk samples under this hood in a sterile environment to make sure they are not contaminated with bacteria.

One way to study the inflammatory response of macrophages is to expose them to DOSS and then see if they produce the inflammatory proteins. Instead of trying to measure the secreted proteins, we can measure how much RNA is made in the cell. The RNA is the translator molecule that takes the plan for the protein from the DNA and makes it available for the cell to read and make the right protein. I identified genes for four different inflammatory proteins to measure the RNA so we can test if DOSS causes the macrophages to make more of any of them. I am testing macrophages that I am isolating from human placenta and breast milk tissue because the developing child is influenced by inflammation in the placenta and breast milk. Macrophages in these tissues could be the source of inflammation that influences how the child develops.

Okay so we have talked about cells, but what about the instruments? In my last post I introduced my instrument of choice, but did not call it that. It is not a guitar or a saxophone, but the HPLC, or high performance liquid chromatograph. This is simply a fancy instrument used to separate chemical compounds by forcing them through a tiny filter column filled with tiny beads. Some compounds stick more to the beads than others, so when you flow a liquid through the column the compounds come out of the column at different times. It is essential to separate the compounds in a sample because then you can measure the amounts of individual compounds.

We want to know where DOSS goes in the body, so we need to be able to measure how much of it is in a sample. I am working to get a system up and running to measure the amounts of DOSS in samples from different cells and tissues. We want to be able to measure DOSS in humans and in marine mammals such as dolphins. Dolphins are exposed to DOSS in the COREXIT oil spill dispersal agent that is applied to large and small scale oil spill issues along coastlines and in harbors. Dolphins are an important sentinel species, meaning that they can provide insight into human health issues.

I have to prepare a column and get the right mixture of solvents to make DOSS come off of the column in a timely fashion and in a way that we can measure it. The measurement is actually done with a mass spectrometer, which measures allows us to identify the compound based on how much it weighs. The number of atoms and types of atoms in the compound determine the mass of the compound. This mass is how the instrument measures the compound. The technique I am using is therefore called liquid chromatography mass spectrometry or LC-MS and the instrument is also referred to by LC-MS. Hopefully by the end of the summer I will be able to find beautiful data with this instrument that will make a coherent tune rather than a jumble of notes.

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This is the MS part. It measures the mass of the compound and then breaks it apart and measures the mass of the pieces of the compounds and the amount of the compounds.

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This is the LC or liquid chromatography part of the LC-MS instrument. Most of the work is figuring out the best solvent system to the sample through the small column with the red tag on it.

Funding for this REU program is generously provided by the National Science Foundation and hosted by the College of Charleston. Dr Demetri Spyropoulos at the Medical University of South Carolina is graciously hosting my research project and providing mentorship.

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References:

Bianchini, F., Kaaks, R., and Vainio, H. (2002). Overweight, obesity, and cancer risk. The Lancet Oncology 3, 565–574.
Fujiwara, N., and Kobayashi, K. (2005). Macrophages in Inflammation. Current Drug Target -Inflammation & Allergy 4, 281–286.

Living Life as a Sea Urchin Momma

Hailey Conrad, Rutgers University

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Me working hard to make my sea urchin babies

For my project I am using the same technique that the father of genetics, Gregor Mendel, used to establish his Laws of Heredity: cross breeding. So, I have to breed and raise a whole lot of sea urchins. For a refresher, I’m trying to determine if there is heritable genetic variation in how sea urchin (specifically an Arbacia punctulata population from Woods Hole, Massachusetts) larvae respond to ocean acidification. To do this, I’m rearing sea urchin larvae in low and high carbon dioxide conditions and measuring their skeletal growth. I’m breeding 3 sea urchin males with 3 sea urchin females at a time, for a total of 9 crosses. To tease apart the impact of genetic variation on just the larvae themselves, I will be fertilizing the sea urchin eggs in water aerated with either current atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, about 410 parts per million, or 2.5 times current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, about 1,023 parts per million. Then, I will be rearing the larvae in water aerated with either 409 ppm CO2 or 1,023 ppm CO2. This will give me four different treatments for each cross, giving me 36 samples in total. By fertilizing and rearing them in the same and different levels of carbon dioxide I will be able to see how much of an impact being fertilized in water with a higher carbon dioxide concentration has on larval growth versus just the larval growth itself. It’s important for me to make that distinction because I just want to identify genetic variation in larval skeletal growth, and separate out any extraneous “noise” clouding out the data. I’m rearing the larvae in a larval rearing apparatus. Each of the 36 samples will be placed in jar with water aerated with the correct CO2 treatment. Each jar will constantly have atmosphere with the correct CO2 concentration bubbled in. Each has a paddle in it that is hooked to a suspended frame that is swayed by a motor. This keeps the larvae suspended in the water column. The jars are chilled to 14 C by a water bath.

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My larval rearing apparatus

After a 6-day period the larvae are removed from the jars and their skeletal growth is measured. They are preserved with 23% methanol and seawater and frozen.

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An Arbacia punctulata pluteus

You’re probably curious how the heck I am able to measure the larva’s skeletons. They’re microscopic! Well, I use a microscope coupled to a rotary encoder with a digitizing pad and a camera lucida. Which, looks like this:

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A microscope coupled to a rotary encoder with a digitizing pad and a camera lucid hooked up to a computer

This complicated-sounding hodge-podge of different devices enables me to do something incredible. I can look through the microscope at the larva, and also see the digitizing pad next to the microscope, where I hold a stylus in my hand. When I tap the pad with the stylus and the coordinates of various points on the anatomy of the plutei that I am tapping at get instantly recorded on my computer! The rotary encoder is the piece attached to the left side of the microscope and it enables me to record coordinates in three dimensions. Then, I can use those coordinates to calculate the overall size of the skeleton. My favorite part of doing science is learning how scientists are able to do the seemingly impossible- like measuring something microscopic.

After I gather all of my data, I will do some statistical analysis to see the affect that the male parents have on the skeletal growth of their offspring. I will not be focusing on the impact that females have on the skeletal growth of their offspring. The quality of the egg itself could be an influencing factor on the size of the offspring, whereas sperm is purely genetic material. Like how I’m trying to isolate the influence of ocean acidification during larval rearing from during the act of fertilization, I am trying to isolate just genetic influences on larval skeletal growth from egg quality. Check back to see how it goes!

Special thanks to the National Science Foundation for funding this REU program, the College of Charleston and Grice Marine Laboratory for hosting me, and Dr. Bob Podolsky for mentoring me!