P in streams

I work with some incredible grad students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Today, I’d like to highlight research led by Sophie Weaver, a student in the Biology & Wildlife department.

When asked about her research, Sophie likes to say she studies “P in streams.” Sophie is investigating how differences in nutrient availability might affect the growth of the organisms that make up the green scum, or microbial skins, that one slips on when crossing a stream. Besides phosphorus (the “P” in her descriptive quip), she also works with nitrate, ammonium, and acetate.

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Sophie with her little blue cups.

After adding various nutrients to little blue cups, she launches them in her research streams. Post-incubation, she collects the cups to measure the abundance of autotrophs (critters that produce their own energy) and heterotrophs (critters that, like us, consume delicious things to produce energy). The ratio of autotrophs to heterotrophs can tell her something about how nutrients impact green scum composition. This research is important because stream microorganisms directly influence water quality and ecosystem function.

Sophie conducts her research at the Caribou-Poker Creeks Research Watershed (CPCRW), a pristine watershed located about thirty-five miles northeast of Fairbanks. Rumor has it that Sophie and her labmates been known to pursue the other wonders of CPCRW besides what fuels green scum growth, from chilling ciders in wee arctic streams to stripping down, jumping in, and cooling off on a “hot” Alaskan summer day.

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Building a backup bee

The director of bee biology for the Wonderful Company, Gordon Wardell, is working on a magnificent experiment. He is trying, across a vast grove of pistachios, to develop an alternative insect pollinator.

With the decline of honey bee populations (due to many things, including (and likely prominently) because of viruses!), the need for an alternate has become critical. Not just for pistachios, but for almonds, which rely exclusively on honeybees for pollination.

Want to know more about this crazy idea (trust me, this one is a long shot)? Read about it here.

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“Fits neatly inside a lizard’s cloaca”: scientists review products on Amazon

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Ziploc bags can be used as snail carriers. Food containers make good little bee homes. A salad spinner makes a good PCR centrifuge. Any scientist who’s ever done field work knows that everyday household projects can be game changers.

And now, scientists are reviewing these products on Amazon.

Read about them here!

 

If you know a Federal scientist, give them a hug. It’s been a really bad week.

From a friend who works for the forest service:

“This week my colleagues and I have had to deal with confusing gag orders and onerous requests for information and justifications of our work. In one case, I was given only half an hour to write statements on a number of pending agreements to explain why they were in the “public interest.” Note, these agreements involve *already allocated funds*, that have gone through *numerous justification and vetting processes already*. I have no idea how these justification requests will be used, but signs out of other agencies are ominous.

All of that said, the *single most pressing issue* for us right now is the blanket hiring freeze. We can muddle through with a hiring freeze on permanent staff, but my work and that of many of my colleagues (and much the functioning of the rest of the Federal system) depends on temporary and seasonal workers.

If this part of the ban is not lifted, then I will not be able to complete a number of projects that are critical to learning how we can best restore arid ecosystems in the Western United States. These lands are under threat from increasing fire frequency, invasive species and other disturbances. These lands support and sustain wildlife, pollinators, rare plants, clean air, clean water, Native American tribes, recreationists, sportsmen and ranchers. These lands are part of our heritage as Americans.

If you would like to help Federal scientists and other Federal employees continue to provide the public service that you have *already paid for* as a tax payer, please consider adding *lifting the ban on temporary and seasonal hiring* to your list of things that you are calling your Senators and Representatives about. Thank you.”

Notes from the Field: Above the Arctic Circle!

Friend and sometime contributor, Devin Drown, has recently started up a research program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (Congrats Devin!). And this summer he lead an army of undergraduates on a series of interesting projects near or above the Artic Circle.

Sadly, coordinating and advising an army of undergraduates doesn’t leave too much time for writing blog posts. But he has kindly sent me these interesting snippets from the field. Check them out!

Toolik Field Station to use MinION sequencing.

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Fairbanks Permafrost Experiment Station

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Gathering Ancient DNA from Permafrost

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You smell like bacteria… and that’s a good thing

Birds have a number of loud and showy ways to attach a mate. But they also have a subtle one: smell.

And it turns out that some of that smell are naturally made by bacteria in the preening gland.

So I’m not saying you should use “hey girl, you smell like the best bacteria” as a pick up line, but it might be worth trying!

(If you’re a bird. NiB is not responsible for this interaction going south)

Read all about the work by Danielle Whittaker over at Science News!

"Hey girl, you smell like the sexiest microbes"

“Hey girl, you smell like the sexiest microbes”

 

Bones! And what they can tell us

I am a fan of the uncharismatic  (so far I’ve studied plants, snails, trematode and will soon branch to bees).

And there are few things in the world more universally charismatic than dinosaurs. Seriously, look no further than the Jurassic Park movies.

I promise that this is not the start of another AMAZING summer about dinosaurs (see last summer’s posts), but my love of the uncharismatic and my love of dinosaurs meet in this awesome comic about taphonomy! It’s the science of how bones are made into bones!

And it’s a pretty cute cartoon. Go check it out! I haven’t seen the Corkboard of Curiosities blog before, but it looks promising!

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Crowd-funding a Joshua tree reference genome

(Flickr: jbyoder)

(Flickr: jbyoder)

Remember Joshua trees? If you read this blog, you probably do. They’re an ecological keystone species — and a cultural icon — in the Mojave desert, and they have a fascinating, co-evolving relationship with yucca moths. Some contributors to this very blog, have been studying that pollination relationship and its evolutionary consequences for a decade, building on natural history research that goes back to the time of Charles Darwin.

Up to now, though, modern genetic tools have been of limited use for Joshua trees, because no one has assembled the complete DNA sequence of a Joshua tree. Having a “reference genome” would let those of us who study the trees identify specific genes involved in coevolution with yucca moths, compare the evolutionary effects of that pollination mutualism to natural selection exerted by the harsh environments in which the trees grow, and even use genome-scale data to inform Joshua tree conservation planning.

Well, we’ve decided it’s time to do all of that, and we’re asking for help. A team of folks with expertise in Joshua trees’ natural history, Mojave Desert ecology, and genomic data analysis launched the Joshua Tree Genome Project a couple weeks ago, with a crowd-funding campaign on Experiment.com to pay for part of the DNA sequencing we’d need to assemble a reference genome.

We’re approaching 50% of our funding goal, and leading a competition among projects based at undergraduate universities to recruit the most donors, which could win us $2,000 in matching funds — so even if you give as little as $1, you’re providing a big boost to the project. Go check out the Joshua Tree Genome Project website, and then head on over and pledge your support.

Beware of Sea Tomatoes

Arctic lakes are not known for their cute and cuddly organisms. But to be fair, they must endure crazy extremes. During the summer they are blasted with 24 hours a day of ultraviolet radiation, and during the winter they endure months of icy blackness, and low levels of life-sustaining nutrients all around.

And yet, some life seems to thrive in this environment. Take for example, the sea tomato. Sea tomatoes are round, plumn and look adorable. However, they are actually colonies of toxin-producing cyanobacteria. And they are piling up on the bottom of Greenland’s lakes. Although sea tomatoes are not uncommon in general, the sheer size and abundance of these particular pile ups are unusual.

Read about it over at Eos. So strange…

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