Bigelow Laboratory continues quest for ocean knowledge

Research advances understanding of ecosystems, global processes and environment
Posted:  Friday, August 17, 2018 - 7:15am
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In East Boothbay, a group of scientists have devoted their academic and professional careers studying how some of the smallest living organisms makes the biggest impact on the global environment.

Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences has an international reputation for studying phytoplankton, microscopic marine algae. And East Boothbay is a good place for it. Bigelow is the nation’s official marine phytoplankton repository with over 3,000 different species either being grown or maintained frozen in liquid nitrogen.

Much of Bigelow’s research focuses on how phytoplankton affects the ecosystem, global process and environment. So why do nearly 100 scientists spend so much time studying a particle so small it’s invisible to the naked eye? For Senior Vice President of Research and Education Ben Twining, the answer is simple. “Other marine life like whales and sharks are more sexy topics, but the little plants are the bottom of the food chain and make half the oxygen we breathe. So it has a huge impact on the global environment,” he said.

But phytoplankton isn’t the only thing Bigelow scientists and researchers study. Oceanography, a science dealing with the physical and biological properties and phenomena of the sea, is a major focal point. The ocean’s impact on Earth is so great, life wouldn’t be possible without it.

The ocean and phytoplankton are significant factors in why life thrives on Earth. Oceans cover 70 percent of the planet and account for 20-40 percent of world’s food supply. “(Ocean is) what makes the world livable for people and organisms. No other planet has water, and it’s the ocean which makes for a temperate climate for life.”

Bigelow researchers have studied phytoplankton and other oceanography-based subjects since 1974. The research center originated after a federal fisheries research center and state fishery lab left West Boothbay Harbor. Spencer Apollonio of Boothbay Harbor was Maine’s Department of Marine Resources at the time. He negotiated an agreement with the federal government for the state to use the vacated property.

Later that year, Apollonio reached an agreement with an old friend to operate a private, non-profit marine research facility. Dr. Charles Yentsch, a scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, visited Appollonio in his Augusta office about the state’s plan for the property. This conversation led to Yentsch and his wife Clarice becoming Bigelow’s founding members.

Yentsch, who died in 2012, was described as a “maverick” in his obituary. He was among the first scientists to use satellites in studying the ocean. Clarice Yentsch of Fort Lauderdale, Florida is known for her work in flow cytometry, a laser-based system which identifies 20,000 cells a minute.

With the Yentschs in tow, the new non-profit facility needed a name. The center was named after Henry Bryant Bigelow who died in 1967 at 68. Bigelow was a founding member of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and a pioneering oceanographer and marine biologist.

In the past 45 years, Bigelow research has advanced what is known about oceanography. Current research topics include aquaculture, changes in the Arctic, Gulf of Maine and beyond, human health, ocean acidification, and microbial mysteries. Bigelow is organized around three core themes of blue biotechnology, ocean biogeochemistry and climate change, and ocean health.

Blue biotechnology uses ocean research to make technological advancements toward improving human life. This research is responsible for creating new antibiotics or extracting alternative fuels from algae. At Bigelow, researchers use blue biotechnology in solving a problem plaguing aquaculturists harvesting Atlantic salmon.

Salmon produced from aquaculture don’t quite look right. The fish grown by man isn't pink like other salmon. “They are white and who wants to buy white salmon,” Twining said.

Wild Atlantic salmon eat shrimp and krill which provide their pink pigment. Bigelow scientists are currently developing a method of using phytoplankton to naturally produce astaxanthin, the chemical compound that turns salmon pink. The compound could then be added to salmon feed to turn farmed salmon pink.

The Ocean Biogeochemistry Center studies how marine plants influence the global processes. Twining is part of this research. Their work examines how if ocean plants didn’t absorb carbon dioxide, the Earth’s temperature would increase.

“Thirty percent of what we emit either by breathing or driving cars goes into the oceans,” he said. “It’s used by plants and taken out of the surface and then moves to the ocean bottom. So if ocean plants weren’t doing that then the world would be a much warmer place,” Twining said.

But it seems the oceans need help reducing greenhouse gases. Bigelow’s ocean biogeochemistry shows more marine plants would absorb more carbon dioxide. The Climate Change Center, and Center for Ocean Health research show a more ominous future for the Gulf of Maine. Its temperature is rising faster than other bodies and increased carbon dioxide levels are responsible, according to Twining.

The rapid increase creates ocean acidification. Bigelow research shows the Gulf of Maine has warmed 1.5 C in the past 100 years. And the warmer waters threaten Maine’s lobster industry. Ocean acidification impacts how shellfish form shells. A lack of shells makes baby shellfish more vulnerable to predators. Twining said that lobsters used to be abundant in Long Island Sound, New York, but the waters became too warm and lobsters moved north. He is worried this trend may continue in Maine.

“A 1.5 degree change may not seem like a lot, but it’s changing at a faster pace than anytime in history. And we are studying how microbial organisms are adapting to this,” he said.

In January, Bigelow welcomed a new executive director. Dr. Debbie Bronk holds a Ph.D. in marine-estuarine and environmental sciences. She has two decades' experience as a professor and an oceanographer. In her new position, she holds the job Dr. Charles Yentsch held. She is responsible for continuing Bigelow’s mission investigating microbial drivers of global ocean processes through basic and applied research, education and enterprise.

Bronk said Charles Yentsch’s legacy is still alive at Bigelow and it attracted her and others to the center. She described the Yentschs as “rebels." Bronk believes that type of spirit is required in discovering science's unsolved mysteries. “The place was started by two rebels. They both wanted to do science a different way. And that spirit is still what makes this place special,” she said.

Bronk believes Bigelow’s rebel spirit is imperative in the center’s continued success. Bigelow has a $12 million annual budget raised almost entirely through grants and fundraising. The scientists have the main responsibility for raising dollars for their own research. There are two kinds of money in the research field: publicly funded research grants and private donations.

The National Science Foundation has been a major source for Bigelow scientists’ research money. The foundation funds research and education in most science fields and engineering through grants and cooperative agreements. According to its website, the foundation accounts for 25 percent of federal support for academic research. The foundation receives approximately 40,000 proposals each year and funds about 11,000.

“It’s the best money to get because it allows the researchers to go where the idea takes them. If it takes you in a different place, you are free to follow it,” Bronk said.

But the pursuit of grant money is a tough road. If a Bigelow scientist is unsuccessful, then there is no money for their research. But Bigelow researchers have a successful track record for securing grant money. Bronk estimated nearly two of every five Bigelow grant applications receive approval.

“Our researchers are at the top of their game. You can’t be mediocre and write a competitive proposal. Our success rate is around 38 percent which is unheard of,” she said.

Bigelow scientists receive some salary support from the institution, about seven weeks' worth. In the future, Bronk would like to seek more philanthropic grants and fundraising to ease pressure on the center’s scientists. She also would like to see two to four more scientists in the next few years.

“The way we’ve done things has worked, but it’s a grind. Some extra money might relieve pressure and allow more creative thinking. We need the wacky ideas because that’s when the real breakthroughs occur,” she said.

Oceanography is a relatively new scientific field. According to Bronk, the oceans played a key role in fighting World War II which led the U.S. to devote more resources to research. Even though scientists have studied the oceans for decades, there is still a lot more for scientists to discover, said Bronk.