A New BIOS Facility for Biological Study

Organisms like this heteropod, a primary food source for many larger marine animals, will be studied at the new Environmental Change Research Facility at BIOS, scheduled to open in early 2017. Image credit: Kelvin Santana Rodriguez

A new research facility under construction at BIOS will allow researchers to collect tiny organisms on coral reefs and in the open ocean, then monitor their growth, development, and community structure in temperature-controlled rooms at BIOS that simulate conditions found at sea.

The Environmental Change Research Facility, scheduled to open in early 2017 for use by BIOS scientists as well as visiting researchers and students, enhances BIOS as a place to conduct global environmental change research.  The facility “fills holes in the types of research we can do and makes us competitive to ask, and answer, a greater range of questions,” said BIOS biologist Amy Maas, an author on the National Science Foundation-funded grant.

While doing research on organisms, ranging from young coral to bacteria and plankton that form the base of the marine food web, scientists will also have access to a new imaging microscope capable of tracking the growth of a variety of living organisms.

“We didn't have all the facilities in place to mimic environmental aspects that fluctuate with climate change, including sea temperature,” Maas said. “With these environmental chambers we can look at temperature as a component of change, and couple that with changes in nutrients, pollution, and other complicating factors.”

“The goal of this facility is to take us that step further so that the Institute can really serve as a facility not for just work at BIOS but for research happening all over the world,” she said.

Many of the organisms Maas and her colleagues study are small in size—including those at early-life stages, such as sea urchins and corals—as well as planktonic zooplankton, algae, and members of bacterial and viral communities. For example, Maas studies pteropods that live in all regions of the world’s ocean and serve as a food source for larger marine life, including salmon, seabirds, and whales. When studying pteropods, Maas needs to maintain temperatures between 68 and 75°F (20 and 24°C) depending on the oceanic condition she is trying to recreate.

During Bermuda’s summer months, this can be challenging. Ocean research facilities commonly have environmental rooms, which resemble large, walk-in-refrigerators, for biology research because it can be difficult to maintain the constant, low temperatures needed for the care and maintenance of living organisms, particularly in warmer climates.

Authors on the $337,965 grant included Maas, BIOS education director Penny Barnes, and BIOS microbiologist Rachel Parsons, who runs the Microscopy and Image Analysis Facility at BIOS. Modifications to modernize an existing environmental room at BIOS began this fall and construction also began on the second, new room. The insulated, 10-by-12 foot chambers will be installed in January. Once gas lines and plumbing are added, the rooms should be operational by early spring.

Sea lice or thimble jellyfish

A photo of a magnified juvenile thimble jellyfish (or “sea lice”) represents the type of image that can be captured using the facility's new microscope. These zooplankton are common in Bermuda and contain symbiotic algae that contribute to marine carbon fixation during the day. This organism was sampled by the Bermuda Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The new microscope will be placed in the Microscopy and Image Analysis Facility at BIOS, upstairs from the environmental rooms. The microscope will arrive in January and will be in use after Maas and Parsons receive training. The inverted microscope has a light source above the stage, where the microscope slides are placed, and the lenses are below the stage; this is opposite from an upright, or conventional, microscope. This state-of-the-art microscope has the ability to enhance contrast in unstained and transparent samples, including the zooplankton Maas studies.

“An inverted microscope is especially beneficial to larger organisms like zooplankton and coral larvae and as such will benefit a range of scientific programs at BIOS,” Parsons said.

The microscope also has live cell imaging with a time-lapse option that captures, in real time, the reactions of organisms to environmental change, without the need for sample preservation.

“For example, larger organisms may be exposed to elevated carbon dioxide in the environmental chambers, and while the experiment is still ongoing, their cell structure changes can be measured instantly while the organisms grow,” Parsons said.

In addition, the epifluorescent capabilities of the new microscope allow for the identification of microbial and planktonic communities using a variety of wavelengths, from ultraviolet to infrared. This benefits existing programs at BIOS including the ongoing Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS) and BIOS-SCOPE programs. Scientists from these programs are already designing experiments and methodologies to invest in the capabilities of this new facility, Parsons said.

The new facility will be an asset to researchers at BIOS as well as visiting students and scientists for cutting-edge climate work. Researchers from Arizona State University, Yale University, and Southampton University have expressed interest in projects in the next year, in addition to ongoing research associated with the BATS and BIOS-SCOPE projects.