Congratulations to MBL’s Linda Amaral Zettler and colleagues, whose paper introducing the “Plastisphere” has been named “First Runner Up: Best Environmental Science Papers of 2013″ by the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The journal’s editors selected the winners from more than 1,730 papers it published last year on a range of topics in environmental science, technology, and policy.

Plastic debris from the ocean. Credit: Erik Zettler

Plastic debris from the ocean. Credit: Erik Zettler

The Plastisphere, a novel ecological habitat, is the flotilla of microbial communities attached to bits of plastic debris in the ocean. Amaral Zettler collaborated with Erik Zettler of Sea Education Association and Tracy Mincer of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to collect the samples (most of which were millimeter-sized pieces of plastic)  in the North Atlantic Ocean and analyze their microbial passengers. The Plastisphere, they say, raises a host of questions. How does it change environmental conditions for marine microbes and their competion for survival? How does it change the ocean ecosystem and affect larger organisms? Does it change where microbes, including pathogens, are transported in the ocean? Because plastics are so long-lived, the scientists say, they may play a significant role in distributing bacteria in the ocean.

Zettler ER, Mincer TJ, and Amaral-Zettler LA (2013) Life in the ‘Plastisphere’: Microbial communities on marine plastic debris. Env. Sci. & Tech. DOI: 10.1021/es401288x

Eight undergraduates from the University of Chicago spent a day discovering MBL science last week, having “trekked” to Woods Hole with the UChicago Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (UCISTEM) program.

xxxx watch a green sea urchin release its gametes into seawater while visiting the MBL’s Cellular Dynamics Program on Tuesday, March 25. The students were visiting the MBL with the UChicago Careers in Science, Technology, and Mathematics Program.

University of Chicago undergraduates Sarah Kurtis (left) and Margaret Lee watch a green sea urchin release its gametes into seawater while visiting the MBL’s Cellular Dynamics Program on Tuesday, March 25. The students were visiting the MBL with the UChicago Careers in Science, Technology, and Mathematics Program.

The program helps UChicago students explore and prepare for a STEM-related career by providing opportunities such as workshops, internships, and trips or treks to STEM employers in industry and academia.

The MBL visitors included both science and humanities majors, with career interests ranging from neuroscience to marine biology, science writing to bioinspired design.

While at MBL, the students fertilized sea urchin eggs with guidance from scientists in the Cellular Dynamics Program; toured the Marine Resources Center and the National Xenopus Resource; learned about cephalopod camouflage, sea lamprey regeneration, and the Encyclopedia of Life; and discussed science journalism with Heather Goldstone, science editor at WCAI.

Later, they toured Woods Hole Science Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where they also met a representative from Hydroid, Inc. An impeding blizzard precluded their planned visit to Woods Hole Research Center.

A student studies sea urchin eggs prior to fertilization.

A University of Chicago student studies sea urchin eggs prior to fertilizing them.

The visiting undergraduates were: Medha Biswas (Biology major), who is returning to the MBL this summer through a University of Chicago Metcalf Internship to work with UChicago neurobiologist and Whitman investigator William Green; Lyda Harris (Biological Science/Visual Art minor), Katalina Kimball-Linares (Biology), Sarah M. Kurtis (Biology), Margaret Lee (Chemistry), Tyler Lutz (Physics and English), Eliza Nieweglowska (Chemistry), and Lauren Vogel (English Language and Literature). They were accompanied by Andrea Dieckmann, senior associate director, University of Chicago Pre-Professional Programs and director, UCISTEM Program.


MBL’s Linda Amaral Zettler and colleagues first described the Plastisphere, an ecological community of microbes floating on plastic debris in the ocean, last year. This week, Amaral Zettler, Erik Zettler of Sea Education Association, and Tracy Mincer of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are presenting their latest discoveries about the Plastisphere, and how it interacts with the larger ocean ecosystem, at the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii. More information is here.

Greg Boyd holds a piece of macroplastic marine debris. Photo courtesy of Linda Amaral Zettler

SEA Education Association scientist Greg Boyd holds recovered foam floats containing invertebrates and microbial biofilm. New research being presented at the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting delves deeper into the role microbial communities living on plastic marine debris play in the ocean ecosystem.
Credit: Erik Zettler, SEA

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One barometer of the weather is a plant’s seasonal cycles, such as the date when its leaves sprout in spring or drop off in fall. What these cyclic events, called plant phenology, might reveal about climate change is the focus of a long-term Brown-MBL study in a Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., forest.

An automated camera on a tower can record seasonal changes in overall leaf color, but photos might not always correspond to seasonal biochemical changes within leaves themselves. Credit: Marc Mayes/Brown University

An automated camera on a tower records seasonal changes in leaf color in a Martha’s Vineyard forest. Credit: Marc Mayes/Brown University

“Our overall goal is to understand the phenology of trees in a temperate, deciduous forest, and how it responds to climate change,” says MBL Ecosystems Center scientist Jianwu (Jim) Tang.

Tang and his collaborators have placed digital cameras on meteorological towers in the Vineyard’s Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, at the Nature Conservancy Hoft Farm Preserve, and in a private forest, and have been continuously capturing images of the trees and leaves since 2000.

They discovered recently that forest “greenness,” as captured by the digital images, does not necessarily correspond to direct measures of peak chlorophyll content in the leaves, which is an indicator of photosynthesis. (Photosynthesis levels, in turn, indicate rates of carbon absorption by the leaves, which is important information for modeling the impacts of climate change.) Their results are published online in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences.

“While color of leaves is important information, we found it is not sufficient to derive the real phenology change,” says Tang. They needed to supplement the imaging data by collecting leaves on a weekly basis and measuring chlorophyll levels in the lab. “This is a warning for future study,” says Xi Yang, a graduate student in the Brown-MBL Partnership and Graduate Program and lead author on the new paper. Yi’s advisors are Tang and John F. Mustard, professor of geological sciences at Brown University.

For more information, please see this press release issued by Brown University.


Yang X, Tang J, Mustard J (2014) Beyond leaf color: comparing camera-based phenological metrics with leaf biochemical, biophysical and spectral properties throughout the growing season of a temperate deciduous forest. J. Geophys. Res. DOI: 10.1002/2013JG002460



The MBL hosted the annual Brown-MBL Partnership retreat, November 8-9 in Woods Hole. Thirty-six Brown undergraduate students visited MBL laboratories, the Marine Resources Center, the Semester in Environmental Science, and the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve to investigate research and internship opportunities at MBL.

The retreat featured a symposium, “Imaging Across Biology,” and a display organized by MBL Senior Scientist Rudolf Oldenbourg with contributions from Shinya Inoué (MBL), Louie Kerr (MBL), Mai Tran (MBL), and Jim McIlvain (Zeiss Inc.) and others that traced the history of microscopy at the MBL.

Rudolf Oldenbourg explains the principles of polarized light to Brown students visiting for the Brown-MBL Partnership retreat.


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