Tools of the trade: thermocyclers, like the one used by BIOS scientist Leo Blanco-Bercial in this photo, enable scientists to target and amplify specific genetic sequences of interest, whether those sequences originate from the tiniest plankton or the biggest fish on a reef. The new Molecular Multi-User Facility will have similar instruments to facilitate molecular work for ocean ecology.
A molecular facility will enhance sample processing for researchers and experiential learning for students
The National Science Foundation awarded BIOS a grant this fall to establish a Flow Cytometer and Molecular Multi-User Facility and to acquire specialized equipment to better collect and preserve delicate plankton at sea. The new equipment and laboratory facilities will expand molecular research opportunities for scientists and students at BIOS, benefiting the university courses and internships that teach current research techniques, as well as long term research projects.
The multi-use facility will provide a space to process samples collected at sea or from laboratory experiments, as well as the molecular technology that is now essential to many areas of modern biological research.
Access to the new facility will help ensure that visiting researchers have the molecular data they need before returning to their institution, rather than subjecting their samples to degradation or loss during shipping. Over the past five years, BIOS has hosted between 86 and 138 visiting scientists annually.
BIOS scientist Leocadio Blanco-Bercial, who uses genetics to study the identities and distributions of marine zooplankton communities worldwide, said that it will be easier for these scientists to travel home with the extracted genetic data or proteins needed for further analysis, rather than preserved organisms, because extracted samples are typically small in volume and are not classified as hazardous material.
The new facility will also host a flow cytometer, an instrument prized by both biomedical researchers and biological oceanographers for its ability to analyze the abundance or unique properties of cells in a sample. Whether immune cells in a blood sample, or the plethora of planktonic cells in a seawater sample, the flow cytometer funnels all cells in a fluid into a single-file stream, and one by one each cell crosses the path of a laser. The way the light bounces off the cell produces a signal that reflects the size or chemistry of the particle.
With thousands of cells passing by the laser every a second, researchers can rapidly quantify the number and type of cells in a sample.
At BIOS, microbial oceanographer Rachel Parsons can use the flow cytometer to study and teach students about the abundance of both bacterioplankton and picophytoplankton, photosynthetic microbes that contain fluorescent pigments, in seawater. Likewise, the flow cytometer can be used to study immune cells from urchins in Andrea Bodnar’s Molecular Discovery Lab and the Oceans and Human Health courses.
The flow cytometer may also enhance research into coral reef ecology, as it can identify and sort coral larvae in seawater samples to study larval dispersal rates, and can be a powerful tool to study the microscopic symbiotic partners of corals known as zooxanthellae, whose pigments confer corals with their charismatic colors. Corals lose zooxanthellae during coral bleaching events, an indicator of stress on coral reefs.
“This new facility and equipment will benefit both resident and visiting scientists, in addition to increasing the research potential for new graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and research interns at BIOS,” said Penelope Barnes, Education Director, University Programs and principle investigator of the grant. She collaborated with microbial oceanographer Parsons and zooplankton ecologist Blanco-Bercial on the development of the grant.
“It is also our intention that this facility will enhance the experiential learning potential of BIOS courses, current and future,” she said.
Funding was provided by NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences, which supports grants to improve facilities and equipment at field stations and marine laboratories in recognition of the crucial role these institutions play in supporting environmental and basic biological research, education, and the cross-pollination of scientific ideas.