Archive for June, 2012

Last spring, independent radio producer Sara Robberson became interested in the life of Shinya Inoué, a pioneering microscopist, cell biologist, and MBL Distinguished Scientist. Little did she realize, when she started her research, that Inoué’s story would take her from considerations of science during wartime, to the very nature of the cell. Robberson created a radio story about Inoué’s life and insights, “The Cell’s Mystery,”  during a Transom workshop at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole. To listen, go to

Shinya Inoue in his lab at the MBL. Photo by Tom Kleindinst.

Who is the soft-spoken Nobelist who spends nearly every summer day at his lab bench at MBL? Avram Hershko, a Whitman investigator from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Hershko, who appreciates what he has called MBL’s “creative” and “peaceful” environment for conducting research, was profiled yesterday in the Science section of the New York Times:

Avram Herskho in the MBL's Rowe Laboratory. Photo by Tom Kleindinst

Plastic trash — fishing line, food containers, tampon cases, all kinds of polymer-based throw-aways — is the most abundant form of marine debris. It’s puzzling, though, that despite the glut of plastic production since World War II ( current global production is about 77 pounds of plastic a year for each of the 7 billion humans on the planet), no significant trend in plastic accumulation in the ocean has been observed since 1985. While an alarming amount of plastic washes up onshore, another chunk of it is being degraded at sea. Marine plastics are known to break down due to physical shearing and photodegradation, and MBL scientist Linda Amaral Zettler wants to know if and how microbes are involved, as well.

Amaral Zettler recently received a collaborative NSF grant to explore the “Plastisphere”–the microbial communities attached to and surrounding marine plastic debris. By determining what microbes are found in the Plastisphere and what they are doing, Amaral Zettler and her collaborators hope to determine the key biological factors that control the fate of plastic debris in the open ocean. This will open up new questions to explore, such as “How is the abundance of plastic debris affecting the health of open ocean environments and their food webs? Can a truly biodegradable plastic be formulated that can have minimal impact on marine ecosystems?”

At present, Amaral Zettler is aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, a vessel operated by Sea Education Association (SEA) of Woods Hole. Amaral Zettler is working with the faculty at SEA to develop a new semester course in Marine Biodiversity Conservation. As part of this trip, she and SEA students are collecting marine plastic samples to begin studying The Plastisphere.  Below is an update Amaral Zettler sent this week from onboard the ship.

Images from the June 2012 SS Corwith Cramer research cruise spanning over seven orders of magnitude in size (1 micrometer bacterial cell to 15 meter whale). Petri plate with marine bacterial colonies, plastic marine debris, viper fish, and humpback whale. Credit: Linda Amaral Zettler

12 June 2012

Ship Position: 42N x 69W
Weather: wind SxW, force 4. Sailing downwind under square sails
Seas: 3-5′

The SSV Corwith Cramer left Bermuda just over a week ago and has been sailing north of the Gulf Stream for several days now. Gone are the blue, blue, deep, deep waters of the Sargasso Sea but new discoveries await in the productive waters off Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine as we transit back to the New England shore. This morning’s pod of humpbacks that greeted us for a pre-breakfast interlude was a nice example.

Our students aboard have logged many hours at the microscope identifying species of Sargassum hydroids, 15 species of deep-water myctophid fishes, and over 50 morphotypes of microbes belonging to the genus Vibrio. Other student projects are explorng the population genetic variability in the larvae of spiny lobsters, North-American and European eel larvae,
Sargassum shrimp, and the Sargassum macroalgae that constitute the hallmark of the Sargasso Sea. Their data will be added to the International Ocean Biogeographic Information System (iOBIS) database, the database that served the former Census of Marine Life (, and the Encyclopedia of Life ( Additional voucher samples will help promote conservation efforts via the Ocean Genome Legacy by preserving a variety of Sargasso Sea species for later downstream genetic barcoding.

Students in the microbes group are also contributing directly to an NSF-funded project examining the diversity, function and fate of microbes on plastic marine debris in the open ocean. Leading this NSF project are Amaral Zettler, Tracy Mincer of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution [WHOI] and Erik Zettler of SEA.

In addition to traditional morphological identifications, for the first time aboard these sailing school vessels, students have extracted genomic DNA from their samples and used molecular biology techniques taught onshore to target marker genes of interest for their individual projects. Their precious samples are being sequenced this week at the W. M. Keck Sequencing Facility in the Josephine Bay Paul Center at the MBL in Woods Hole.

Upon return, students will add their new molecular findings to their existing data to prepare  independent research projects that they will formally present as part of a science-policy symposium the final week of the course. Through a unique blend of hands-on research science and policy education, Marine Biodiversity Conservation students will have an opportunity to narrow the gap between science and policy makers while helping to affect change in the protection of the high seas.

Intestinal section from a gnotobiotic mouse model inoculated with selected
bacterial species from the human gut. Blue=Bacteroides WH2, green=Bacteroides thetaiotamicron, pink=Bacteroides vulgatus, yellow=Collinsella aerofaciens, red=Ruminococcus torques. Credit: Yuko Hasegawa, MBL Woods Hole.

Twitter: It sounds vaguely silly. Maybe that’s why many scientists don’t bother to communicate via tweets. After all, how much can be conveyed in 140 characters or less?

Well, a lot. As I somewhat belatedly found out, Twitter has become the global water cooler for finding and exchanging scientific news and communication. It’s where each journal article, research news story, blog post of scientific interest gets condensed into a tweet (basically, a headline and live link) and passed around on the Internet, 24-7. If your tweet about your latest PLoS ONE article attracts interest (and it will), people will comment on it and retweet it, sending it far and wide on their own network of Twitter contacts. Twitter is a big, wide pipeline of up-to-the-minute, global dialogues on just about every topic, from nanotechnology to astrophysics. You choose which conversations you want to hear—and in which ones you want to want to be heard.

For scientists who are at all interested in outreach communication beyond their peers, Twitter is the place to be. It’s where science writers, science funders, entrepreneurs, educators, employers are listening. Yet many scientists balk at using social media sites, as biologist and science writer Christie Wilcox points out in an essay in the current issue of the Biological Bulletin. Wilcox argues that scientists must start dialoguing about their work on social media such as Twitter and Facebook not only for their own benefit, but if we are to make headway in defending science against persistent (and serious) political and religious attacks, and in addressing widespread scientific illiteracy.

In a thoughtful Nature blog post yesterday, biologist Jeanne Garb agrees that scientists “need to become better communicators,” but she adds, “please be realistic… most scientists are already overburdened with just keeping their laboratories and careers afloat.” How are they to find time to speak up on social media?

Garb thinks the solution is institutional communications teams that not only promote the “big” research news, but also help their scientists conduct an “ongoing conversation about the science happening on a daily basis.” (That would be on Twitter.) This conversation is necessary, she writes, to “help science and scientists to become more transparent and less intimidating,” which in turn garners more interest in science and helps promote science literacy. And that has “positive effects on legislative policy and funding, and that’s a good thing.”

The MBL Communications Office (@MBLScience on Twitter) regularly tweets about MBL science and events, so the team is in place. But so much happens on campus that we never hear about, or that we can’t be there to observe. Cool equipment arrives in a course. A research connection falls into place between two scientists. A small discovery makes a big difference in a student’s understanding. That daily dialogue about scientific life— that’s what we need to get better at. And while we are making inroads, it’s truly best when it comes straight from the scientists themselves.

So, we encourage you, give Twitter a whirl. Twitter is easy to learn, it’s informative, and it’s also fun. Here’s a good primer on learning to tweet. If you’d prefer, MBL Communications can give you a quick, hands-on lesson ( We’d be happy to help you get going on Twitter, and of course, we will retweet you @MBLScience.

If every scientist on campus tweets even a few times a month, that’s enough to generate steady dialogue on MBL science! And that is what we all want to hear.