Uncovering Seasonal Changes in the Algae Our Oceans Depend On

Emily Spiegel, Bryn Mawr College

As described in my previous posts, this study focused on a polar diatom, F. cylindrus.  Despite the harsh temperatures of its habitat, this diatom is awesomely productive. It can form blooms under sea ice so thick, it looks like grass! Marine organisms feed on these blooms, which contributes to productivity of the entire ecosystem.

Because the poles are situated at the ends of the Earth, they are subject to constant changes in light availability, from continuous light to continuous darkness. How are photosynthetic organisms like F. cylindrus able to adapt to this stressful change? Their ability to produce biomass is dependent on light levels: too much and these cells can be overwhelmed, too little and there may not be enough to balance against the costs of respiration.

I found that in the low light exposure of polar autumn (6h light: 18h darkness), F. cylindrus begins to reproduce sexually, instead of asexually. This was found through analysis of RNA expression, which is an indicator for how much a certain gene is being transcribed into proteins to do work within the cell. Sexual reproduction leaves behind a trace in the RNA, based on the particular genes involved. As opposed to the primary form of diatom reproduction (asexual), sexual reproduction conserves resources and produces fewer cells. So the population does not grow to the same extent as populations reproducing asexually, but it’s also able to survive in stressful and changing conditions better than asexual populations.

Interestingly, stress can also reduce the ability of F. cylindrus to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, in a process known as carbon fixation. This shift could have major implications for how well the polar oceans remove CO2 from the atmosphere at different times of year. Could autumnal months in the poles show dramatically decreased carbon fixation rates? What would such a pattern mean for current global carbon models? Further research must be conducted at the poles themselves to determine whether this relationship exists in nature, and how it is affecting carbon flux within the polar oceans.

This research was conducted in the lab of Dr. Peter Lee from the College of Charleston at the Hollings Marine Laboratory in collaboration with the Medical University of South Carolina. Many thanks to all members of the lab, particularly Nicole Schanke, MSc.


The BMA of Today

Christine Hart, Clemson University

2017-06-22 10.29.36

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).


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


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.


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.


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.



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.

Hiding in plain sight

Brian Wuertz, Warren Wilson College


How much do we really know about all the chemicals that we are exposed to every day? Do we even know when we come into contact with them? How much do we know about what is in homogenized milk, soda, stool softeners, baby formula, and personal care products such as eyeliner? The answer may be “not enough” for one compound found in all of those products, dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, or DOSS. DOSS has recently been identified by my mentor, Dr. Spyropoulos and his Ph.D. student, Alexis Temkin, as a probable obesogen. Obesogens are a class of compounds that promote obesity by interfering with the body’s hormone signaling pathways related to energy use, fat cell regulation, and inflammation. These pathways are especially important in the developing fetus, where hormone signals influence development and may have long lasting effects on the health of the child after birth (Holder 2016).


I am working on a High Performance Liquid Chromatography  (HPLC) system, in the early stages of developing a method to measure the amount of DOSS in cell extracts. (More to come in future posts!)

We are especially concerned with regards to the developing fetus and child because stool softeners containing DOSS are are commonly taken by pregnant women. Approximately 35% of over 20,000 women who gave birth at MUSC in recent years reported taking a stool softener containing DOSS during their pregnancy. I am working to help understand the biochemical pathways DOSS may follow to affect changes in the  developing fetus through a mother’s exposure to DOSS. I am also working on a method to measure the amount of DOSS in cells so that we can learn where in the body DOSS goes and how much of it there actually is.

You might be wondering how this fits into the theme of marine organism health at this point since all I have talked about is human health and a compound found in products we put in our bodies, DOSS. A red flag was raised about DOSS through research on COREXIT, one of the agents used to clean up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Over 40 million gallons of COREXIT was dumped into the ocean as a part of the cleanup effort and DOSS is one of the major components (Temkin 2016).  DOSS was flagged as a potential human health hazard because of the research done on marine environmental degradation. It amazes me how a perhaps seemingly unrelated topic can end up having human health implications. I am excited to keep working on this puzzle to learn more about DOSS and how it interacts with the systems in our bodies!

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.



Holder, B., Jones, T., Sancho Shimizu, V., Rice, T.F., Donaldson, B., Bouqueau, M., Forbes, K., and Kampmann, B. (2016). Macrophage Exosomes Induce Placental Inflammatory Cytokines: A Novel Mode of Maternal–Placental Messaging. Traffic 17, 168–178.
Temkin, A.M., Bowers, R.R., Magaletta, M.E., Holshouser, S., Maggi, A., Ciana, P., Guillette, L.J., Bowden, J.A., Kucklick, J.R., Baatz, J.E., et al. (2016). Effects of Crude Oil/Dispersant Mixture and Dispersant Components on PPARγ Activity in Vitro and in Vivo: Identification of Dioctyl Sodium Sulfosuccinate (DOSS; CAS #577-11-7) as a Probable Obesogen. Environ Health Perspect 124, 112–119.




Expect the Unexpected in Science


Alessandra Jimenez, Whitworth University

As this internship has recently come to an end, I now begin to reflect on the wonderful yet challenging experience I had conducting observational research on Atlantic brown shrimp (Farfantepenaeus aztecus). In the last few weeks of this 10-week summer program, there was a fascinating yet unexpected turn of events. In particular, results of the experiment pointed to conclusions that I initially found myself unprepared for!

In summary, the focus of this experiment was to test effects of immune response on the ability to escape predators in shrimp. The escape mechanism, called tail-flipping (see video below) is actually powered anaerobically. However, recovery from this energetic behavior absolutely requires oxygen (is aerobic). As further explained in previous blog posts (click here and here), a recently discovered consequence of mounting an immune response against bacterial infection involves depression of aerobic metabolism. So, my mentor and I decided to focus on the recovery aspect (aerobic) of the escape response and predicted that this aerobic process would be impaired in shrimp injected with bacteria. At the same time, we predicted that the anaerobic part of this mechanism would be significantly impacted.

A slow-motion video of an Atlantic brown shrimp juvenile tail-flipping in an experimental tank (c) Alessandra Jimenez

The last few weeks of the internship mainly consisted of analysis, arriving at conclusions, and publicly reporting results. After testing tail-flipping ability (click here for an explanation of how this was tested) in a total of 42 shrimp juveniles, 30 of these were chosen for final analysis. Using a statistics software called Sigmaplot (version 12.5), I conducted tests that basically compared experimental groups based on the two variables I investigated: treatment type (bacteria or saline) and time given after injection (4 or 24 hours). Afterwards, results were deemed important based on significance values assigned by these Sigmaplot tests.

Significant results were very surprising!  Overall, results suggested that metabolic depression (indirectly caused by the immune response) did not have an impact on recovery (aerobic). At the same time, the most unexpected finding of all suggested that bacterial exposure actually increased anaerobic tail-flipping activity in Atlantic brown shrimp juveniles! Thus, this result called for a complete change in focus from the aerobic part to the anaerobic part of this particular escape response.

So, how could I possibly explain the increase in anaerobic processes found through this experiment? After much pondering and going through scientific literature, I formulated a new hypothesis. An important enzyme in crustaceans called arginine kinase is involved in the storage and creation of anaerobic energy that can be used for tail-flipping. Recent studies involved injecting bacteria into live crustacean tissue and comparing arginine kinase expression levels with controls. Results indicated a significant increase in expression in bacteria-injected tissue, especially in abdominal muscle (important for tail-flipping!). Based on these investigations, I now think that there may be a link between immune response and levels of anaerobic metabolism. Further research is required to explore this.

The final stages of the internship included creating and presenting a Powerpoint presentation of our work, and submitting a manuscript of my summer investigation. Overall, this REU internship experience has been challenging yet exciting, and has confirmed my love for marine biological research. As I mentioned at the end of my presentation, “expect the unexpected in science”.

powerpoint presentation - REU 2015

Picture of me right before giving my Powerpoint presentation (c) Alessandra Jimenez


Burnett, L. E., Holman, J. D., Jorgensen, D. D., Ikerd, J. L., & Burnett, K. G. (2006). Immune defense reduces respiratory fitness in Callinectes sapidus, the Atlantic blue crab. Biological Bulletin, 211(1), 50-57.

Gruschczyk, B., Kamp, G., 1990. The shift from glycogenolysis to glycogen resynthesis after escape swimming: studies on the abdominal muscle of the shrimp, Crangon crangon. J Comp Physiol B, 753-760.

Scholnick, D. A., Burnett, K. G., & Burnett, L. E. (2006). Impact of exposure to bacteria on metabolism in the penaeid shrimp Litopenaeus vannamei. Biological Bulletin, 211(1), 44-49.

Yao, C., Ji, P., Kong, P., Wang, Z., Xiang, J., 2009. Arginine kinase from Litopenaeus vannemai: Cloning, expression, and catalytic properties. Fish Shellfish Immunol 26, 553-558.

Many thanks to College of Charleston for hosting my project, Dr. Karen Burnett and Hollings Marine Laboratory for guidance and work space, and NSF for funding the REU program.


What’s living in the sand?

Jessie Lowry, Coker College


Visible microalgae seen on the surface of wet sand at Folly Beach.

Next time you go to the beach this summer, I want you to think about the sand that you are walking on. Did you know that there are tons of microscopic photosynthetic organisms, aka microalgae, that live on the surface of sand? Before this summer, I didn’t know about these organisms either. Here is a picture of visible microalgae on the surface of the sand. Look for this next time you’re at the beach!

Microalgae communities in sand are made up of single-celled eukaryotic algae and cyanobacteria living in the top several millimeters of the sand (Miller et al., 1996). These organisms play important roles in ecosystem productivity and food chain dynamics, as well as in sediment properties, such as erodibility (Miller et al., 1996).


Dr. Craig Plante and Jessie Lowry collect samples of sediment from Folly Beach. Photo credit: Kristy Hill-Spanik.

I am studying these microalgal communities and what factors influence community structure. For example, does pH, salinity, nutrients, or grain size shape microalgal community structure? Or does geographic distance shape communities? To answer these questions, I am collecting samples from Kiawah Island, Folly Beach, Isle of Palms, and Pawley’s Island, SC. We are measuring environmental variables at each location, and using molecular tools to study microalgal community structure.

I am extracting the DNA from samples collected, amplifying specific regions from these samples using polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and then we will be getting these regions sequenced using Ion Torrent technology. We will then use QIIME to determine how similar these benthic microalgal communities are.


Jessie Lowry preparing samples for PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, which is used to make millions of copies of a piece of DNA.

Diatoms, a group of microalgae, have been proposed as bioindicators of environmental health (Desrosiers et al., 2013). Bioindicators are really cool because instead of telling a snapshot of an environmental condition, such as pH, temperature, or amount of oxygen in an environment, biological indicators reflect those changes and can give an idea of how the ecosystem is being affected. This research will further our knowledge of what factors shape benthic microalgal communities, and give a better understanding of these organisms as a potential bioindicator. In addition, this research will add to knowledge about the distribution of microorganisms, which is also not fully understood.

Learn more:




Desrosiers, C., Leflaive, J., Eulin, A., Ten-Hage, L. (2013). Bioindicators in marine waters: benthic diatoms as a tool to assess water quality from eutrophic to oligotrophic coastal ecosystems. Ecological Indicators, 32, 25-34.

Miller, D.C., Geider, R.J., MacIntyre, H.L. Microphytobethos: The ecological role of the “Secret Garden” of unvegetated, shallow-water marine habitats. Estuaries, 19(2A): 186-212.


Thank you so much to my mentors Dr. Craig Plante, and Kristy Hill-Spanik. This research is funded through the National Science Foundation and College of Charleston’s Grice Marine Lab.


A day in the Shrimp Lab


Alessandra Jimenez, Whitworth University

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a lab researcher who works with live animals? Through this internship, I am experiencing this firsthand in Hollings Marine Laboratory, along with all the responsibilities involved!

A normal workday in the life of a “shrimp intern” is like this: A big part of it is animal care and maintenance. It starts in the morning with a daily visit to the wet lab, where approximately 80 brown shrimp juveniles are kept in four large tanks with circulating water. After feeding them a round of commercial shrimp pellets, I test the salinity of the water in each tank using a refractometer to make sure that each tank has a certain salinity value: 30 parts per thousand, to be exact. I use dechlorinated freshwater and seawater to adjust this value if needed. Besides salinity, I also need to watch out for harmful levels of ammonia (it’s a part of shrimp waste!), nitrates, etc. In usual circumstances, I conduct a water change (replacing old water with new) once a week in order to dilute these chemicals. For the past couple of weeks, however, I have been conducting water changes daily in order to keep ammonia levels neutral in three tanks. Ah, the life of a caretaker of tons of baby shrimp!


Wet lab. @AlessandraJimenez

Besides animal husbandry, I work on my experiment involving the effects of injection of bacteria on tail flipping (Want to learn more about what I’m doing? click here). I have two shrimp at a time in separate, well-aerated tanks, and they are both from the same treatment group. Shrimp are randomly assigned to one of four treatment groups. These treatment groups are designated according to the treatment type (injection of bacteria or saline) and according to the amount of time between the moment of injection and the tail-flipping procedure (4 or 24 hours). I randomly select two shrimps from the wet lab, weigh them, and keep them in the two experimental tanks overnight so they can get used to the new environment, temperature, etc. The next day, I take each shrimp out of the tank momentarily and quickly inject them with bacteria, or a saline buffer if they are part of the control group. Then, I give them 4 or 24 hours (depending on group type) to rest before conducting the actual tail-flipping experiment. Using a stir-rod (basically, a straight stick), I poke the shrimp lightly to induce tail-flipping, and count how many flips they perform before fatigue. The number of flips here is called ‘initial activity’. Then, I give them 20 minutes to recover in the tank before tail-flipping them again. The number of flips this time is called ‘recovery activity’.


Experimental tanks @AlessandraJimenez

Why tail-flip them twice? Well, we hypothesize that recovery activity will be impaired in bacteria-injected shrimp versus the controls, while initial activity would probably not be. This is based on how recovery from tail-flipping activities involves aerobic (or oxygen-fueled) metabolism. Since bacteria accumulate in the gills of shrimp and block oxygen uptake (want to learn more? click here), it would make sense that recovery activity would be reduced. Stay tuned for results later on!

Works Cited:

Gruschczyk, B., Kamp, G., 1990. The shift from glycogenolysis to glycogen resynthesis after escape swimming: studies on the abdominal muscle of the shrimp, Crangon crangon. J Comp Physiol B, 753-760.

Scholnick, D. A., Burnett, K. G., & Burnett, L. E. (2006). Impact of exposure to bacteria on metabolism in the penaeid shrimp Litopenaeus vannamei. Biological Bulletin, 211(1), 44-49.

Many thanks to College of Charleston for hosting my project, Dr. Karen Burnett and Hollings Marine Laboratory for guidance and work space, and NSF for funding the REU program.