November 14, 2009
Today a large team of marine biologists went diving and snorkeling at about 7 am to collect specimens for analysis. They were not expected to return until about 2 pm so I decided to explore the bird-life on Heron Island, do some local snorkelling and then interview some of the remaining scientists to find out more about the nature of their work and why they were doing it. I chose to feature the three of these scientists in this journal entry.
I started with Dr. Abby Fusaro who told me that her main task on Heron Island was to collect sub-samples of tissue from a diverse array of specimens such as algae, echinoderms, polychaete worms, bryozoans, zooanthids, soft corals and crustaceans for DNA analysis. Back in her home state of Massachusetts in the United States she would be analyzing some 800-1000 samples of DNA fingerprints which will eventually be publicly available on the World Wide Web, complete with barcodes on the BOLD system of Genbank. This website has been set up by the Ocean Genome Legacy Foundation in Ipswich, Massachusetts which is a non-profit DNA bank archive. It can be accessed on www.oglf.org. As I interviewed Abby she was in the middle of preparing some soft coral tissue for DNA analysis. This involved placing tiny pieces of tissue in Eppendorf tubes which contained a mixture of DES, EDTA and sodium chloride then adding CHAOS (Guanidine Thiocyanate) and 100% ethanol. Abby said that her work was important because it provided vital information about the biodiversity of organisms in the Heron Island reef ecosystem. She also added that you need to understand what is there now in case it is lost later on. This data can then be made available to other scientists who may not be able to directly access the location themselves. Data concerning when and where the specimens were collected is catalogued which according to Abby adds value to traditional collections because the material is curated in one place. Abby originally studied population genetics and obtained her four year undergraduate degree in Oceanography from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Oceanographic Institute and then completed a six year doctorate. During her university days she studied benthic larval lobsters, salt marshes, polychaetes and in graduate school developed an understanding of PCR and Gel Electrophoresis techniques which are central to her current work in DNA fingerprinting. At only 30 years old she is a young scientist with a bright future. This is her first trip to Heron Island after completing some work at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia in May, this year; her next destination is Lizard Island, another beautiful and important scientific location in the Great Barrier Reef.
Next, I spoke to Dr. Charlotte Watson about her work with marine worms. Charlotte is involved in a three year C reef project to undertake a baseline study of the types of polychaete worms that are located in and around corals. She is an advocate of pure science and is passionate about it regardless of the economic impact. She has always found the discovery of the unknown exciting after thirty years in the field. Charlotte was placing calcareous tubes containing worms in a solution of seawater and squeezing alcohol over the top to encourage the worms to emerge from the tubes as I was interviewing her. Strong forceps are needed to crush the tubes carefully and then gently pull the worms out of them. Worms can then be analyzed with a stereo microscope and features such as opercula and setae can be drawn to assist identification. Charlotte agreed with Abby's idea that we need to know what we have in order to know how to manage the environment in light of global climate change.
Dr. Monika Schlacher was born in Vienna, Austria, has lived in Australia for twelve years and now works for the Queensland Museum. After initially studying sponges she later became interested in soft corals because of their immense beauty. Soft corals belong to the Phylum Cnidaria, Class Anthozoa and Subclass Octocorals. They are referred to as octocorals because the polyps have a body plan in which there are eight arms in a concentric circle. Octocorals include three main groups of organisms grouped into blue corals, seapens or soft corals (Order Alyconacea). Underwater soft corals are far more colourful and beautiful than how they appear once dredged up onto land. Monika is probably the only person currently working on soft corals in Australia. Encouraged by her now retired mentor, Philip Alderslade, she has continued to document the location of soft coral species in and around coral reefs. In doing so she has continually found and described new species which she has found intellectually stimulating. While working in the laboratory, Monika was never far from her reference book, "Soft Corals and Sea Fans" which was written by Philip Alderslade and Katharina Fabricus. In it there are detailed descriptions of various soft corals accompanied by brilliant colour photographs of the morphology of octocorals and their sclerites. Perhaps the next publication will be by Dr. Monika Schlacher.