Archive for the ‘College News’ Category

Marine Scientist Explores Ecosystem Balancing Act on Caribbean Coral Reefs

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

University of Maine marine scientist Bob Steneck participated in a study that indicates overfishing and climate change have collided to create a new dynamic on Caribbean coral reefs.

The study, led by University of Exeter geographer Chris Perry, was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

It highlights the delicate balance between bioerosion caused by feeding and excavating of bioeroders — sea urchins, sponges and parrotfish — with the natural production of carbonate that occurs on coral reefs.

On healthy coral reefs, bioerosion rates can be high, but more carbonate is typically produced than is lost to biological erosion, say the researchers.

But due to warming seas and ocean acidification, Steneck says rates of carbonate production have slowed on many Caribbean coral reefs and coral cover has declined dramatically since the early 1980s.

Still, he says, marked shifts to states of net coral reef erosion have not widely occurred because bioerosion rates experienced by corals have plummeted in recent years due to disease and overfishing of bioeroders that rasp away limestone.

The dynamics are opposite in Maine, Steneck says, because shell-crushing crabs (green, Jonah and rock crabs) have increased in recent decades.

“Marine ecosystems continue to surprise us both here in Maine and in the Caribbean because the cast of characters and the climate both keep changing,” he says.

The study, says Perry, shows the future health and growth potential of coral reefs is, in part, dependent on rates of coral carbonate production and the species that live in and on them and act to erode carbonate.

If historical levels of bioerosion were applied to today’s Caribbean reefs, researchers say there would be widespread destruction, threatening many of the benefits that reefs provide to society.

“If bioeroding species increase in number, and erosion rates increase relative to carbonate production, then this could spell trouble for many Caribbean coral reefs,” Perry says.

That trouble, says Steneck, would include if “bioeroded reefs lose their breakwater function to protect shorelines and they lose their habitat value for reef fish on which many people depend.”

Management efforts are directed at protecting one group of bioeroders — parrotfish. Although parrotfish erode reef substrate, researchers say an increase in the number of parrotfish will benefit reefs because the advantages they provide by removing fleshy macroalgal cover and promoting coral recruitment outweigh negative effects of substrate erosion.

“In essence, we need to work towards restoring the natural balance of ecological and geomorphic processes on coral reefs,” Perry says. “From a bioerosion perspective that may seem counterintuitive, but these species also play a critical role in maintaining reef health.”

In addition to the University of Exeter in England and the University of Maine, the University of Auckland in New Zealand, Memorial University in Canada, James Cook University in Australia and the University of Queensland in Australia took part in the collaborative study. A Leverhulme Trust International Research Network Grant funded the research.

To read the research paper titled “Changing dynamics of Caribbean reef carbonate budgets: emergence of reef bioeroders as critical controls on present and future reef growth potential” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/281/1796/20142018.full.

To read the release published by University of Exeter, where Perry is a professor in physical geography and director of research for geography: exeter.ac.uk/news/featurednews/title_416424_en.html.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Flu Fighting

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

zebrafish

In the ongoing struggle to prevent and manage seasonal flu outbreaks, animal models of influenza infection are essential to gaining better understanding of innate immune response and screening for new drugs. A research team led by University of Maine scientists has shown that two strains of human influenza A virus (IAV) can infect live zebrafish embryos, and that treatment with an anti-influenza compound reduces mortality.

It is the first study establishing the zebrafish as a model for investigating IAV infection.

“A zebrafish model of IAV infection will provide a powerful new tool in the search for new ways to prevent and treat influenza,” according to the researchers, who published their findings in the journal Disease Models & Mechanisms.

The research team is led by professor Carol Kim and graduate student Kristin Gabor of UMaine’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Engineering, and includes four other UMaine researchers and one from Ghent University.

Most studies of viral pathogens that can infect zebrafish have been limited to fish-specific viruses. However, in recent years, four human viral illnesses have been reported to be modeled in zebrafish — herpes simplex, hepatitis C and chikungunya and now influenza A.

For studies of flu virus infection, the researchers focused on specific sialic acids and cytokines comparable in zebrafish embryos and humans. For these studies the zebrafish embryos also were kept in a temperature range comparable to the human respiratory tract (77 to 91.4 degrees F).

“The transparent zebrafish embryo allows researchers to visualize, track and image fluorescently labeled components of the immune response system in vivo, making it ideal for immunological research,” said Kim, a UMaine microbiologist and vice president for research and graduate school dean, writing earlier this year in the journal Developmental and Comparative Immunology.

In this study, visualization of a fluorescent reporter strain of IAV in vivo demonstrated that IAV infects cell lining surfaces of the zebrafish swimbladder, as it does in the human lungs.

In addition, the antiviral drug Zanamivir, known for being effective in treating influenza A and B in humans, was tested in vivo and was found to reduce IAV infection.

The researchers note that studies of IAV infection in adult zebrafish have the potential to provide valuable insights into infectious disease processes, particularly in understanding adaptive immune response and vaccine efficacy. This is critically important in light of the rapidly developing resistance of the influenza virus to drug therapies.

“This zebrafish embryo model of IAV infection will be an important resource for dissecting molecular mechanisms of host-pathogen interactions in vivo, as well as for identifying new antiviral therapies,” write the researchers.

Contact: Margaret Nagle, 207.581.3745

Think Big, Go Small, Mass Produce

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

nano

University of Maine researchers have been awarded $700,000 to develop eco-friendly particleboard panels with adhesive made of cellulose nanofibrils (CNF), as well as design a commercial-scale plant to manufacture the CNF.

With one $350,000 grant, UMaine scientists Mehdi Tajvidi, William Gramlich, Doug Bousfield, Doug Gardner and Mike Bilodeau, as well as John Hunt from the USDA Forest Service (USFS), are tasked with making strong, stiff and fully recyclable particleboard panels that can be used in countertops, door cores and furniture.

UMaine researchers taking part in the project have areas of expertise ranging from forest products to chemistry to chemical and biological engineering.

The adhesive in the particleboard will be made from CNF, rather than what has commonly been used — urea-formaldehyde. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen.

Cellulose nanomaterials are natural structural building units from wood; they’re 1/100,000th the width of a human hair and can be used in high-value products with superior properties, including exceptional strength.

“High-volume applications of cellulose nanomaterials, such as what we will be doing in this research, are a key step toward commercialization of these wonderful all-natural nanomaterials,” says Tajvidi, assistant professor of renewable nanomaterials in the School of Forest Resources.

“Replacing formaldehyde-based resins with a biomaterial has always been desired and we are happy this is happening at UMaine.”

University scientists say utilizing CNF in particleboard has considerable market promise, and optimizing both techniques and methodology are key to successful mass production and commercialization.

To optimize techniques and methodology, UMaine has been awarded another $350,000 to construct a commercial-scale CNF manufacturing plant with a capacity of 2 tons per day.

“This first commercial cellulose nanofibril manufacturing plant is the next phase in demonstrating the scalability of the technology,” says Bilodeau, director of the UMaine Process Development Center.

“It will accelerate commercialization of CNF by making large quantities of CNF available to support the growth in application development activities.”

Paperlogic, a Southworth Company, is a collaborator on the plant project. The CNF plant is slated to be built at Paperlogic’s mill in Turners Falls, Massachusetts; it is expected to be commissioned in late 2015.

Both projects are funded through P3Nano — a public-private partnership founded by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities and the USFS.

The goals of the project are to commercialize cellulosic nanomaterials, create jobs and improve forest health.

Experts in business, government and academia chose to fund the UMaine proposals and seven others from 65 submissions.

Carlton Owen, chair of the P3Nano Steering Committee and president of the endowment, said in addition to creating high-value products, the research could result in jobs and improve the health of forests.

Federal matching funds are provided by the Forest Service’s State and Private Forestry and Research and Development branches and work is coordinated with the USFS Forest Products Laboratory.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Science Evolves

Friday, September 12th, 2014

salmon

While evolution often evokes thoughts about ancient origins of life, University of Maine researcher Michael Kinnison says applied evolutionary biology is about improving the future — including pressing matters of day-to-day life and issues of international policy.

A paper by lead authors from the University of Copenhagen and the University of California, Davis, as well as Kinnison, highlights ways in which food security, human health and biodiversity can benefit in the short- and long-term by using principles of evolutionary biology.

The paper published online Sept. 11 at Science Express indicates when evolution is overlooked the prevailing approaches to treat human disease, reduce agricultural pests and manage at-risk wildlife can be detrimental to achieving sustainable solutions and exacerbate the very problems they’re trying to prevent.

“Applying evolutionary biology has tremendous potential because it takes into account how unwanted pests or pathogens may adapt rapidly to our interventions and how highly valued species, including humans …, are often very slow to adapt to changing environments through evolution,” says Peter Søgaard Jørgensen, a lead author from the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen.

“Not considering such aspects may result in outcomes opposite of those desired, making the pests more resistant to our actions, humans more exposed to diseases, and vulnerable species less able to cope with new conditions.”

Prior research by Kinnison, professor of evolutionary applications, heightened awareness that evolution is a surprisingly dynamic process, often fastest on the shortest time frames — even in one or two generations — and is extensively shaped by human activities. Much of his research considers human evolutionary effects on fish and wildlife populations.

Prime examples affecting humans include pathogens and pests that quickly evolve resistance to antibiotics and pesticides.

“Uncontrolled evolution is often outpacing our best technology,” he says.

For instance, Kinnison and his collaborators note there are more than 11,000 documented cases of pesticide resistance in about 1,000 species of insects and weeds, and that plant pathogens jeopardize agricultural economies and food supplies worldwide.

And, the World Health Organization has warned that microbial resistance to antimicrobial drugs threatens achievements of modern medicine.

“But there is more to this than doom and gloom,” Kinnison says. “A major emphasis of our article is that there are some amazingly creative solutions being applied to manage evolutionary challenges and that these approaches can often be shared and adapted to meet new challenges.”

For example, farmers in the U.S. and Australia set aside pest-friendly refuges, or havens, to delay the evolution of insect resistance to costly chemical controls and genetically engineered crops that support the most production.

Researchers say these refuges have effectively suppressed resistance in the pink bollworm, an invasive pest of cotton.

The paper’s authors suggest refuge strategies may be adapted to broader applications, including preserving the economic value of fisheries and improving outcomes in cancer treatment.

Applied evolution is showing up in some surprising places. The U.S. Atlantic Salmon Recovery Program, and similar programs that use artificial breeding efforts to supplement dwindling wild populations, historically focused on avoiding losses of genetic variation.

These programs now also prioritize a need to avoid inadvertent adaptation of fish to captivity.

Research indicates salmon and other fish adapt rapidly to living in captivity and become dependent on humans, which Kinnison says negatively impacts their ability to survive in the wild.

Fisheries scientists thus seek to limit the number of generations that endangered salmon are bred in captivity and seek opportunities to incorporate new genetic contributions from wild fish.

To show the broad application of evolution to global challenges, the authors promote a simple framework for evolutionary management strategies based on adaptive “match” or “mismatch.”

Researchers say this framework reveals approaches that might otherwise be missed as evolutionary and is applicable to both fast- and slow-evolving species.

Scott P. Carroll, biologist at the University of California Davis and director of the Institute for Contemporary Evolution, says sharing ideas and strategies is particularly important to prevent the spread of new infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance genes between natural, agricultural and human health systems.

The authors emphasize coordinating applied evolutionary principles across these traditionally isolated sectors and, in some cases, at international scales, will be necessary.

They highlight as an example the dual use of antibiotics in human health and food production. Livestock around the planet are given antimicrobial drugs to increase meat production. The astronomical number of livestock greatly increases the opportunity for evolution of resistant pathogens that might harm humans where animal and human antibiotics overlap in mechanism.

Those resistant pathogens can spread through global trade and, in some cases, exchange resistance genes with other strains, say the researchers.

Use of antibiotics in agricultural animals has been implicated in the origins of resistant Escherichia coli found in people afflicted with a potentially fatal whole-body inflammation.

“It’s sobering to think that farming practices in one part of the world might give rise to pathogens affecting human populations elsewhere,” Kinnison says.

“We need international policies that help mitigate such challenges.”

Jørgensen agrees that policy and coordination are critical.

“By using regulatory and redistribution tools, local communities and governments play a crucial role in ensuring that everybody gains from the benefits of using evolutionary biology to realize the long-term goals of sustainable development such as increasing food security, protecting biodiversity and improving human health and well-being,” he says.

Jørgensen will present the research team’s perspective during the Oct. 22-24 Sustainability Science Congress in Copenhagen. The study is online.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Buoying Research

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Boss

The Southern Ocean that encircles Antarctica lends a considerable hand in keeping Earth’s temperature hospitable by soaking up half of the human-made carbon in the atmosphere and a majority of the planet’s excess heat.

Yet, the inner workings — and global importance — of this ocean that accounts for 30 percent of the world’s ocean area remain relatively unknown to scientists, as dangerous seas have hindered observations.

Princeton University and 10 partner institutions seek to make the Southern Ocean better known scientifically and publicly through a $21 million program that will create a biogeochemical and physical portrait of the ocean using hundreds of robotic floats deployed around Antarctica.

In addition, NASA awarded $600,000 to the University of Maine, in collaboration with Rutgers University and scientists from the above project, for a complementary project that equips the floats with bio-optical sensors that gather data about biological processes in the water column.

UMaine oceanographer Emmanuel Boss, an expert in marine optics and in the use of optical sensors to study ocean biogeochemistry, is leading the companion project.

The Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling program, or SOCCOM, is a six-year initiative headquartered at Princeton and funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs, with additional support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA.

“SOCCOM will enable top scientists from institutions around the country to work together on Southern Ocean research in ways that would not otherwise be possible,” says SOCCOM director Jorge Sarmiento, Princeton’s George J. Magee Professor of Geoscience and Geological Engineering and director of the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

“The scarcity of observations in the Southern Ocean and inadequacy of earlier models, combined with its importance to the Earth’s carbon and climate systems, mean there is tremendous potential for groundbreaking research in this region,” Sarmiento says.

About 200 floats outfitted with biogeochemical sensors that provide near-continuous information related to the ocean’s carbon, nutrient (nitrate, in particular) and oxygen content, both at and deep beneath the surface, are central to the study.

The floats are augmented biogeochemical versions of the nearly 4,000 Argo floats deployed worldwide to measure ocean salinity and temperature. SOCCOM marks the first large-scale deployment of these biogeochemical floats.

“These floats are revolutionary and this major new observational initiative will give us unprecedented year-round coverage of biogeochemistry in the Southern Ocean,” Sarmiento says.

The floats will increase the monthly data currently coming out of the Southern Ocean by 10 to 30 times, Sarmiento says.

The data will be used to improve recently developed high-resolution earth-system models, which will advance understanding of the Southern Ocean and allow for projections of Earth’s climate and biogeochemical trajectory.

Boss says the additional optical sensors measure backscattering of light, which provides information about particles — including bacteria and phytoplankton in the water — and measure chlorophyll fluorescence — a pigment unique to phytoplankton.

The information will help NASA verify data that its satellites glean daily, extend the product to depth, and help improve currently used algorithms.

In keeping with SOCCOM’s knowledge sharing, or “broader impacts,” component, all the information collected will be freely available to the public, researchers and industry.

SOCCOM will provide direct observations to further understand the importance of the Southern Ocean as suggested by models and ocean studies. Aside from carbon and heat uptake, models have indicated the Southern Ocean delivers nutrients to lower-latitude surface waters that are critical to ocean ecosystems around the world.

In addition, the impacts of ocean acidification as levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase are projected to be most severe in the Southern Ocean.

Boss says the Southern Ocean — the second smallest of the planet’s five primary oceans — has a disproportionate role in climate regulation. Carbon stored deep in the ocean comes to the surface here and some is released into the atmosphere — however, given the increase in atmospheric CO2 in past decades, much less is released than would be expected.

He says there is still much to learn about this ocean’s significant role in climate regulation.

“It’s a hard area to study,” Boss says of the ocean that encircles Antarctica. “Because there are no barriers, the current is extremely strong. It has some of the roughest seas in the world.”

Other than administering the project, Sarmiento and other Princeton researchers will co-lead the modeling and broader impacts components, as well as coordinated data management. Researchers from NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory housed on Princeton’s Forrestal Campus will carry out high-resolution earth-system simulations in support of the modeling effort, which is led by the University of Arizona and includes collaborators from the University of Miami.

The floats will be constructed at the University of Washington with sensors from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute; NOAA’s Climate Program Office will provide half of the basic Argo floats. Float deployment, observation analysis and data assimilation will be led by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego. Climate Central, a nonprofit science and journalism organization based in Princeton, will oversee the broader-impacts component. Researchers from Oregon State University and NOAA will develop the floats’ carbon algorithms.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777