Can you imagine humans giving birth to babies the size of sand grains? Such a size difference between adults and babies sounds totally bizarre, but it is the norm for algae, or seaweeds. Algae begin their life as spores that are about a tenth of the size of the period at the end of this sentence. From such humble beginning, algae can grow to hundreds of feet tall, the size of a small redwood tree. How is it that the success of something that can become so large depends on something so small and seemingly fragile? The answer, I propose, may strangely enough lie in the physics of the waves that bash against these spores.
My name is Kevin Miklasz, and my research revolves around the weirdest, strangest parts of the natural world I can find. I combine physics with biology to try to understand the more counterintuitive aspects of our world. Often what is bizarre at first sight is actually physically necessary for survival, we just need to find the right questions to ask.
Algae live in a physically stressful environment, with waves being one of their biggest enemies. The small offspring of algae can hunker down very close to surfaces allowing them to live in the "boundary layer," a region of highly reduced forces where they evade the full impact of waves. Thus, the bizarre minuteness of algae spores can potentially be explained by physics.
To test this hypothesis, I want to measure how well algal spores can stay attached to surfaces after being blasted by the type of forces they experience in a wavy environment.
I have chosen to conduct this project at Friday Harbor Laboratory (FHL), University of Washington’s marine biology station. FHL has just installed a state of the art ocean acidification system which allows researchers to subject organisms to future ocean conditions of acidity and temperature, the two biggest climate induced changes in the ocean. I want to use their equipment to understand how the survival of algal offspring will be impacted in the future.
Algae are a prominent feature of our coastline. Besides being beautiful in their own right, they are a source of habitat and food for many coastal animals. Yet algae are under a threat called ocean acidification.
As we put more CO2 into the atmosphere, more CO2 will end up in the oceans, which in turn makes the water more acidic and toxic. Animals likes oysters and corals are particularly susceptible to a more acidic ocean because their calcified parts can be dissolved by acidic conditions.
Coralline algae are a group of calcified algae, and therefore the algae species likely to be hurt most by ocean acidification. Yet corallines are the backbone of many coastal ecosystems. They provide habitats for many marine animals and can also foster the recruitment of abalone and corals. They are sometimes even described as the building blocks of coral reefs.
Generally speaking, babies are more likely to be affected by toxic conditions than adults, thus many researchers have focused research on the juvenile stages of marine animals. Yet no one has extended this thinking to algae, making this project the first to try to characterize the influence of ocean acidification on juvenile algae.
Working with spores isn’t easy, and requires specialized equipment. Your support will go towards financing the raw materials to make a device that simulates the types of forces (shear forces) that spores are likely to feel in a boundary layer (i.e. what it feels like to get smashed by a 10 foot wave when you’re only a hundredth of an inch tall). I will build this device myself this summer.
This design is based on a previous design I’ve used in my PhD to characterize the attachment of algal spores (also featured in the pictures above). Based on my PhD work, I decided to build a new design that will allow me to generate greater forces and better temporal resolution, which will help me to better define exactly how strong and how quick spores attach to surfaces (meaning, the buggers were stronger and quicker than I initially expected- these spores are quite beastly). The new design will also be more compact, allowing it to work inside the ocean acidification equipment available at Friday Harbor Laboratories, allowing me to test spore attachment in future ocean conditions.
The funding goal of $1000 will provide enough support to build a basic version of the shear flume. Additional support will allow me to make more slide mounts and back-ups of different parts of the equipment in case anything breaks, and will fund my travel expenses to FHL.
With your backing and support, we can gain a much better understanding of this bizarre lifeform we call algae, and what will happen to it in the future!
Kevin’s research has centered around the intersect between biology and physics, in particular how physics can explain some of the bizarre and counter-intuitive patterns we find in biology. His research interests fit into that of biomechanics or functional morphology, basically using physics to understand the significance of organism size and shape. Every research question Kevin asks boils down to this simple question: why do organisms look the way they do? His research interests are diverse, from the gliding of flying snakes to the sinking of diatom frustules.
Kevin received his B.A. in physics from the University of Chicago, and will shortly receive his PhD in biology from Stanford University. After receiving his PhD in March 2012, Kevin will take a job with Iridescent Learning (http://iridescentlearning.org/) designing curriculum for after-school science programs for 10 months of the year. Kevin will use the remaining 2 summer months to pursue his scientific research interests.
Another update- we're past the mark, but further donations are still useful to the cause. I now have enough to build the shear flume (thanks everyone!) but $1500 is what's needed to put all the bells and whistles on the shear flume. And we're almost there! The net $500 will go towards my travel expenses to FHL, and I've requested that the funding actually be cut off at $2000, since I have no need for more money than that. So if you want your algae pressings, best get them in before time runs out!
Picture up! I uploaded an image of one of my algae pressings, Sargassum muticum. I know, it's an invasive species wrecking havoc on our coastline and gets a lot of hate, but you can't blame it for just being better at out-competing local algae, can you? I mean, don't hate the player, hate the game, right? In any case, I did not feel bad sacraficing a clump of this guy for a pressing. And I actually find its branching structure and tiny gas vesicles quite beautiful when pressed. So there you go!
Wow, what a big day! Things just moved in leaps and bounds! Thanks everyone! Thanks for the Hopkins shout-out Andrew, and thanks for the push over the edge Moya!
Thanks for all the support everyone! Past halfway there! Any questions, feel free to post here and I'll get to them. Promise to make the project updates interesting, for all of you that make contributions. I'll also try to upload a picture of some algal pressings I've made in the past, for those of you unfamiliar with them, they can be quite beautiful if you know what species to look for.
That's all, thanks!