Reporter Mary Landers wrote a very nice article about Dr. Jay Brandes’s research into microplastic and microfiber pollution on the Georgia coast.
UGA Skidaway Institute external affairs manager was interviewed by Georgia Public Broadcasting about the institute and its work.
Doliolids are tiny marine animals rarely seen by humans outside a research setting, yet they are key players in the marine ecosystem, particularly in the ocean’s highly productive tropical and subtropical continental margins, such as Georgia’s continental shelf. University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Marc Frischer is leading a team of researchers investigating doliolids’ role as a predator in the marine food web.
Doliolids are small, barrel-shaped gelatinous organisms that can grow as large as ten millimeters, or about four tenths of an inch. They are not always present in large numbers, but when they bloom they can restructure the marine food web, consuming virtually all the algae and much of the smaller zooplankton.
“The goal of this particular study is to find out what the doliolids are eating quantitatively,” Frischer said. “This is so we can understand where they fit in the food web.”
Scientists know from laboratory experiments what doliolids are capable of eating, but they don’t know what they actually do eat in the wild. They are capable of eating organisms as small as bacteria all the way up to much larger organisms.
“What they are eating and how much are they eating from the smorgasbord that is available to them, that is the question,” Frischer said. “We are investigating how much of those different prey types they are really eating out there across the seasons.”
The project involves intensive field work, including 54 days of ship time on board UGA Skidaway Institute’s Research Vessel Savannah. During the cruises they conduct trawls using special plankton nets to collect the doliolids. They also collect water samples to understand the conditions where the doliolids thrive.
“We take the doliolids and the water samples back to the laboratory, and that is where the magic begins,” Tina Walters, Frischer’s laboratory manager said.
Because the animals are gelatinous and very delicate, the researchers cannot use classical microscopic techniques to dissect the animals and analyze their gut content. Instead they extract DNA from the animals’ gut and use sequence-based information to determine what the doliolid ate.
“We go through a process called quantitative PCR,” Walters said. “So even though we can’t see the prey in a doliolid’s gut, because the prey have unique DNA sequences, we can identify and quantify them using a molecular approach.”
The three-year project is funded by a $725,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and will run until February 2018. Frischer’s collaborator on the project is Deidre Gibson from Hampton University. Gibson received her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia in 2000, and did much of her graduate research at Skidaway Institute with Professor Gustav Paffenhöfer. In addition to Walters, Savannah State University graduate student Lauren Lamboley is part of the team, along with a number of students at Hampton University. Several undergraduate research interns have also participated in the project, gaining hands-on research experience. Frischer is also working with the Institute for Interdisciplinary STEM Education at Georgia Southern University to engage K-12 teachers by inviting them to participate in the research cruises.
A research paper by University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Aron Stubbins has been selected by the Journal of Geophysical Research-Biogeosciences to be featured as a Research Spotlight on the journal’s website and in the magazine Eos. Research Spotlights summarize the the best accepted articles for the Earth and space science community.
Stubbins’s paper, titled “Low photolability of yedoma permafrost dissolved organic carbon,” followed-up on earlier research into a massive store of carbon—relics of long-dead plants and other living things—preserved within ancient Arctic permafrost. That research showed the long-frozen permafrost is thawing, and the organic material it has preserved for tens of thousands of years is now entering the environment as dissolved organic matter in streams and rivers. Bacteria are converting the organic material into carbon dioxide, which is being released into the atmosphere.
The current paper examines the effect of sunlight on the dissolved carbon compounds. The researchers discovered that sunlight changes the chemistry of the permafrost carbon, however sunlight alone does not convert the permafrost carbon to carbon dioxide. The researchers concluded the decomposition of organic materials via bacteria is mostly likely the key process for converting permafrost carbon within rivers into carbon dioxide.
The research team includes co-lead author Robert Spencer of Florida State University; co-authors Leanne Powers and Thais Bittar from UGA Skidaway Institute; Paul Mann from Northumbria University; Thorsten Dittmar from Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg; Cameron McIntyre from the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre; Timothy Eglinton from ETH Zurich; and Nikita Zimov from the Russian Academy of Science. While climatologists are carefully watching carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, another group of scientists is exploring a massive storehouse of carbon that has the potential to significantly affect the climate change picture.
In recent years, the public has become attuned to the problem of trash in the ocean, especially plastic, as images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch have spread through media and the Internet. Now, University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography professor Jay Brandes is leading a team investigating another issue closer to home on the Georgia coast: microplastics.
These are tiny pieces of plastic—smaller than five millimeters, or about a fifth of an inch—that have either been manufactured small or have broken down from larger pieces. They can be found in our beaches, water and in the digestive systems of aquatic wildlife.
“Five millimeters is still something you can see with the naked eye, but if you are out at the beach you aren’t going to pick up on it easily,” Brandes said. “So we say anything smaller than 5 millimeters is considered a microplastic.”
Funded by Georgia Sea Grant, Brandes and UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant educator Dodie Sanders are in the first year of a two-year study to ascertain the extent of microplastic pollution in Georga’s coastal waters.
“Right now we are just trying to get an idea if there is a problem, and if there is, how prevalent it is,” Brandes said.
Microplastics come from several sources. Beginning in 1972, cosmetics manufacturers started adding plastic microbeads to exfoliating body washes and facial scrubs, which often pass freely through water treatment plants. When scientists reported finding these microbeads in rivers, lakes and oceans, it prompted a worldwide discussion on the issue. In 2015, Congress enacted legislation requiring the cosmetics industry to remove microbeads from rinse-off cosmetics by July of this year.
The sun also contributes to the production of microplastics. Plastic exposed to sunlight eventually fades, becomes brittle and breaks down into smaller pieces.
“All of us have probably seen a Styrofoam cup break down and the little beads come out,” Brandes said. “So there is the physical breakdown of the plastics into smaller and smaller pieces as they grind against each other and sand grains.”
To assess the extent of microplastic pollution on the Georgia coast, the research team makes use of the regular trawls conducted by UGA Marine Education and Aquarium staff. They collect the fish, shrimp, squid and other animals captured in the trawl and take them back to a laboratory where they will dissect them and analyze the contents of their gut.
“The first thing we have to do is to subject the gut contents to some extremely harsh chemicals to destroy the flesh and leave us mostly with the plastics,” Brandes said. “When dissecting even a small fish, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack if you don’t get rid of all the other stuff.”
What is left is examined under a microscope and the plastic pieces identified and counted. The researchers have already found some surprises. Everywhere they look, whether it is beach sand or the contents of a fish’s stomach, they are seeing microfibers, extremely fine synthetic fiber used to create textiles.
According to Brandes, microfibers are pervasive—so much so that when the researchers take samples to the laboratory they have to take special measures to prevent contamination of their samples from microfibers floating in the air. It is not clear, however, if the microfibers are causing any harm to the marine organisms that ingest them.
“We are not finding fish with their stomachs packed with microfibers,” Brandes said. “It’s hard to tell if they are causing any real problems.”
The project also has an educational component. Brandes has taught workshops in which he takes groups of K-12 teachers to Tybee Island to collect sand and return it to the laboratory for microscopic analysis. He says the teachers are usually shocked with what they see.
“Hey, you thought that sand was clean, and from a tourist standpoint it is,” he said. “But there is still stuff in there and then you start talking about where it came from and what kinds of effects it may have.”
The project is expected to be completed and the results published by early 2018.
There was a nice article in Saturday’s Savannah Morning News regarding a new imaging lab at UGA Skidaway Institute.
UGA Skidaway Institute’s Jay Brandes was a featured interview guest on Georgia Public Broadcasting this week, talking about his work with microplastics in the marine environment.
University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography Interim Executive Director Clark Alexander has been appointed to the board of trustees of the Ossabaw Island Foundation.
The Ossabaw Island Foundation is a nonprofit organization responsible for educational, scientific and cultural initiatives on Ossabaw Island, a 26,000-acre barrier island on the Georgia coast.
Alexander is a marine geologist who joined UGA Skidaway Institute as a postdoctoral scientist in 1989 and rose to the rank of full professor in 2003. He was appointed interim executive director in 2016. Alexander earned bachelor’s degrees in oceanography and geology from Humboldt State University in California. He went on to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees in marine geology from North Carolina State University.
As a researcher, Alexander has participated in 63 field programs from New Zealand to Siberia and has been the chief scientist on 29 oceanographic cruises with a total of more than two years at sea. He has published 86 papers in scientific journals, and, in the past decade, has received more than $5 million in direct research funding. In addition, he is the director of the Georgia Southern University Applied Coastal Research Laboratory on Skidaway Island.
Alexander has been very active on state and regional advisory boards and works closely with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to identify and address pressing coastal management needs. He served on the Georgia Coastal Marshlands Protection Committee and the Georgia Shore Protection Committee from 1998 to 2006. A few of the committees he currently serves on include the Grays Reef National Marine Sanctuary Science Advisory Group, the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve Advisory Committee and the Habitat Protection and Ecosystem-Based Management Advisory Panel to the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council.
University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography Interim Executive Director Clark Alexander has been honored by the coastal environmental group One Hundred Miles as one of the group’s One Hundred Miles 100. The list is the first recognition of its kind to honor 100 individuals and organizations for their efforts to support the health, vitality and future of Georgia’s 100-mile coastline. Alexander was selected within the Researchers and Innovators category.
Alexander, a coastal geologist, was cited for his research efforts, which he began on the Georgia coast in 1989 when he first joined UGA Skidaway Institute. He was also cited by the environmental group for helping to advance the work of institutions across the coast. Alexander served on the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve Advisory Board, the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, and the Georgia Coastal Marshlands and Shore Protection Committees.
“Day in and day out, Clark advances our understanding of critical issues facing Georgia’s coast, including barrier island erosion patterns and the effects of climate change on marsh habitats,” his citation reads.
“Georgia’s coast is extremely fortunate to be under the stewardship of these exceptional leaders, conservationists and individuals who recognize its incomparable character and beauty and the essential role it plays in the well-being of our state,” said Catherine Ridley, vice president of education and communications at One Hundred Miles.
Alexander and the other honorees will be recognized with a reception immediately following the One Hundred Miles’ Coastal Conservation in Action: Choosing to Lead Conference on Saturday, Jan. 7, on Jekyll Island.
A full list of honorees is available at www.OneHundredMiles.org/OHM100.