Fish tanks and dissection tools cluttered Jefferson’s Oceanography and Geophysical Systems lab. A small octopus peacefully bobbed up and down along the glass surface of its tank. Students of the previous class hustled the remnants of crab dissections off the tables as seniors Emily Gale, Allie Ivenerand Ian Ladner began their presentation on glowing dinoflagellates and delicate brittle stars, outlining their extensive research and meticulous protocol.
Bioluminescence, the biochemical emission of light by living organisms, is now able to be tested using cutting-edge technology to monitor the environment. It is being used as a bioindicator of water pollution both by subject experts and here at Jefferson. Two teams of seniors in the Oceanography and Geophysical Systems research lab are researching and testing how bioluminescence can determine the water quality of a habitat.
Ladner was first inspired to experiment with bioluminescence when he traveled to San Diego in the summer of 2011. He met David Lapota, a prominent marine biologist who specializes in bioluminescence and is currently working under Navy auspices. Lapota offered Ladner a tour of his San Diego laboratory, which finalized Ladner’s plans for his senior research project.
Lapota has been in contact with the oceanography lab for several years. He is primarily working with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific (SSC PAC) to “adequately understand, model, and predict planktonic bioluminescence in any ocean” over a long period of time, according to a Feb. 2012 report. In addition, Lapota is investigating seasonal differences in the bioluminescence of open ocean dinoflagellates.
Another important source of support for the seniors is Lisa Wu. As the director of the Oceanography and Geophysical Systems research lab, Wu aids the seniors on their various projects. In addition to mentoring the students in the senior lab, Wu teaches Advanced Marine Biology, the prerequisite class for the lab. Her love of oceanography is also shown in her curiosity for bioluminescence.
“So much is unknown now, and it’s a great way for students to be original,” Wu said.
For their experiment, Gale, Ivener and Ladner placed bioluminescent organisms in different concentrations of copper, a heavy metal. They then stimulated the organisms mechanically through stirring and chemically through adding potassium chloride. They later used the QwikLite water quality system, a U.S. Navy invention, to measure the photons that were released by the organisms.
The two organisms that Gale, Ivener and Ladner used were dinoflagellates and brittle stars, supplied by Lapota. Dinoflagellates are commonly used for bioluminescence research because they can indicate the health of an ecosystem. More commonly known as algae, they are vulnerable to heavy metal pollution, which interferes with their capacity to emit light. Dinoflagellates can be dangerous, as they are the cause of the “Red Tide,” a phenomenon that occurs when large amounts of dinoflagellates produce toxins that can be lethal to other aquatic organisms.
The group decided to test brittle stars along with the dinoflagellates in order to see how a more advanced organism would respond to the tests.
Unfortunately, they ran into several problems while testing the brittle stars. They found that brittle stars are extremely susceptible to the harmful properties of copper, and most of their data on the brittle stars was inconclusive.
Lapota had to make several shipments of brittle stars to the seniors because even tiny concentrations of copper turned out to be lethal. However, he applauds the seniors on their determination.
“I admire their persistence in trying to solve the problems they have experienced. Science requires patience and persistence to see fruition in their work,” Lapota said.
In their results, Gale, Ivener and Ladner concluded that certain concentrations of copper are deadly to bioluminescent organisms. Although the brittle stars did not provide conclusive results, the dinoflagellates showed a clear trend of emitting less light as copper concentration increased.
“If our work was done on a much larger scale over a longer period of time, it could potentially lead to the use of these organisms as bioindicators of heavy metal pollution in water,” Ivener said.
Lapota is involved in several other projects as well, including an abalone conservation project in Southern California. He is in the process of developing a new, more dependable BioBuoy, which corresponds to the project of another team of seniors consisting of Stacy Hong and Alexandria Sutton.
“This newer version has a cell phone system which can communicate with the buoy, download new instructions, and transmit data back to me (via a notebook) for analysis of the data,” Lapota said.
Hong and Sutton are calibrating a bioluminescence-based SmartBuoy to create a model to predict algal blooms. Originally a collaborative effort between the oceanography, energy systems and prototyping labs, this project is a continuation from the previous year.
The government and marine fisheries spend millions of dollars every year to clean up algal blooms. The purpose of this project was to determine the location of these toxic algal blooms before they can damage the environment.
“Suddenly, a large amount of algae will release toxins into the water,” Sutton said. “We don’t know when it will happen, and we can’t predict it. We can, however, measure bioluminescence, see when [the algal blooms] occur, and try to find a correlation.”
Before the buoy could be calibrated, Sutton and Hong had to find effective culturing techniques for dinoflagellates. They placed the organisms in carboy flasks so that they could be used to measure bioluminescence. To calibrate the buoy, Sutton and Hong worked with Brian Kennedy, Shawn Stickler and Anthony Wu, Lisa’s Wu’s husband.
According to Sutton, their project is focused on calibrating the buoy against other techniques. Sutton and Hong hope that the Class of 2013 will continue their experiment so that the buoy can eventually be deployed in the Chesapeake Bay.
As these senior projects show, oceanography has potential for new discoveries, though the future of the field of bioluminescence may be even brighter.
Lapota strongly believes that interest in bioluminescence is resurging. “As more students are exposed to bioluminescence in the classroom (such as TJ), then I believe more students will enter into the hallowed halls of bioluminescence and this time they will have the instruments to unravel more of this mystery.”
Wu shares the similar hope that students will blaze new trails into a field that has so many possibilities.
“Oceanography is still one of the final frontiers of exploration on the planet. You always come back with more questions than you went out with.”