Happy (belated) New Year!
I’ve been meaning to write this post for several weeks, but haven’t had the time to sit down and write it out. One of my goals this year is to blog more. I want to share research updates, thoughts on ocean solutions, and experiences of a scientist’s life with you all. Let’s see if I can stick to it.
I want to share two recent papers that just came out.
First, I just finished leading a team that explored whether stable isotopes can tell us more about coral reef community metabolism. As a reminder, stable isotopes are variations in molecules with slightly different weights (Wikipedia explanation here). Because different isotopes of the same atom (e.g. carbon or oxygen) weigh slightly different amounts, organisms will selectively use different amounts of the atom, often preferring to use more of the lighter isotope. This selective process is called “isotopic fractionation” and it has been used to study almost every major geochemical cycle on the planet. Here’s an analogy to help drive this point home.
Imagine that you had a big pile of bricks, most weighed 12 lbs, but some weighed 13 lbs. You wanted to build your house out of these bricks. You start selecting bricks and laying them down to build your house. Each day is long and hard in the sun. You are tired at the end of each day. Because it requires energy to build your house, you end up selecting more 12 lbs bricks than you do 13 lbs bricks. In the end, your house has more 12 lbs bricks relative to the 13 lbs bricks than did your initial pile of bricks. You have “fractionated” the bricks. The same process occurs when marine organisms are selecting the carbon and oxygen atoms to make food or build their skeletons. They fractionate carbon and oxygen isotopes.
In this paper we explored fractionation on a section of coral reef on One Tree Island, in the southern Great Barrier Reef. We asked the question: “Do different parts of a coral reef community fractionate carbon isotopes differently? And if so, can we use that to learn more about what’s living on the reef?”. We learned that, yes, different sections of the reef fractionate isotopes differently. This is really exciting and helps us understand how we can use isotopes to learn more about coral reefs in other locations. I have wanted to study these questions for several years, so it has been really nice to see this all come together.
Just like any good science, this study answered some of our questions and opened up new questions for us to explore. For instance, how much can isotopes tell us about coral reefs in deeper water? What about over longer distances? Or complex flows? We don’t know the answers to these questions right now, but they help set the stage for future research.
Second, I am proud to share a co-authored paper from my earliest time as a scientist, when I was working as a research assistant for the Oceanic Flux Program in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. This paper has been 10+ years in the making! In this paper, we provide a huge data set of the chemical composition of marine particles (solid material falling from the top of the ocean to the bottom of the ocean). We show how the chemical composition varies each year and discuss what controls the chemical composition of the marine particles.
This research took 100s of hours of work in a “clean” lab. This is a lab where you have to wear a Tyvek jumpsuit and a hair net to even enter the lab! Everything is done in the lab to prevent chemical contamination fo the samples. It was a great way for me to learn about the tremendous importance, and challenges, of doing laboratory work. I’m really happy to see that all of that time in the clean room 10 years ago has paid off!
Please note: this article is currently behind a “paywall”. If you are interested in reading it, but do not have access to the journal, please email me for a free author’s copy.