Wednesday, December 29, 2010

MPA spillover

Unlike the BP oil spill, spillover form marine protected areas (MPAs) is considered one of the most important benefits of MPAs to fisheries.  However, documenting the spillover, i.e. contribution of MPA populations to increase in fish stocks outside of the MPA, has been difficult.

In a new PLoS One article, Mark Christie and colleagues have documented larval dispersal from an MPA on the big island of Hawai'i to unprotected sites - spillover.  They use microsatellites to genetic fingerprint adults and recently settled juveniles in an attempt to match parents with their offspring (kids).  As the authors note, its kind of like CSI in the ocean - using DNA to find clues to determine where the suspects came from.  In this case, they found four parent-offspring pairs out of over 1,000 fish tested.  Note that there is some room for error in the assignments, but if judges think that this level of error is enough to convict a man to a life sentence, it is probably okay for us to believe these matches as well.

Figure 1. Christie et al 2010 PLoS One. Photo: W.J. Walsh.
The pairs suggest larval disperse over a range of 15 to 184 km (9 to 114 miles).  Over 100 miles is pretty impressive for a little fish larva adrift.  We've found evidence to suggest that, at hydrothermal vents, larvae can disperse even farther - more than 300 km (185 miles) article.  But, the appeal of Christie's work isn't just the long distance dispersal, but the successful documentation that MPAs can have a positive effect a hundred or more miles away to improve the health of unprotected populations and communities.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year.  Posts will be intermittent (not that they aren't already) for a couple of weeks as I celebrate the season (aka cold) with my family and friends and then head off to the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology Meeting in Salt Lake City, UT (aka more cold) at the beginning of the year.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Spotlight: Southern California Protected Areas

One of the reasons that studying larvae, and population connectivity more broadly, is to inform marine management decisions (see Connectivity Page).

Back when I was a blissfully naive undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara, heated debates were occurring over the first management review of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary  Essentially the previous management plan was thrown out the window.  Advances in scientific knowledge, technology and management made the previous plan obsolete.  It was an interesting lesson on how to juggle multiple stakeholders with varying interests - fishermen, tour boat operators, recreational divers, scientists, and marine organisms.  Some of the debates got down right dirty, but the result was probably a better plan for the conservation of the natural resources over the long run... which should benefit everyone.

Anacapa Island, Channel Islands NMS

Now, California Fish and Game is considering larger scale conservation efforts - new protections for 12 percent of coastal waters between Santa Barbara and the Mexican border, and 7 percent of the waters will be no fishing zones. This would be a huge step forward in marine conservation efforts.  I am of course biased towards my birthplace, but Southern California has beautiful, productive, and diverse marine habitats well worth protecting.  Such a large scale effort will of course be met with some resistance and much controversy... even more than a decade after the Channel Islands review.  Many sentiments are the same... skepticism, concern over livelihoods, and mistrust between the parties. However, some of the preconceived notions are being dissuaded by improved communication. A sea urchin fisherman was quoted saying
  • "A lot of environmentalists I got to work with, we've found that common ground. They understand that fishermen are not the neanderthals like maybe they thought, and we know that not all enviros are wackos. And we basically want the same thing." 
(reported by Southern California public radio article:

I hope that Cali Fish and Game can move forward with this effort and that in some way my research on sea urchins will contribute to the efforts to maintain healthy fishery populations and marine ecosystems.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Doing a jig

I recall once my graduate advisor coming running out of her office to do a pirouette in the middle of her lab because she got a big grant funded.  (Good thing too, since that grant funded a lot of my research.)  I now know the feeling... not because I got a grant funded. I'm still trying to figure out how to submit an NSF grant while I'm at NIH for post-post-doc money - but its proving to be a pain because funding agencies don't like to mix.  So no grant, but I did have a manuscript sent out for review at Science!  This might be a bad thing to post because, though acceptance has a better chance at this point, they could still boot it and I could be jinxing it.  But this was my goal - go out for review!  ~80% of the submissions to Science don't make it to review, so I consider this a huge win!  Upon reading the email, I leaped out of my chair and did a jig.  If it gets into Science, even better! Keep your fingers crossed for me. For now though, I'll celebrate this achievement.  You've gotta appreciate the high points in this career whenever they come.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

High five

I've earned myself a high five yesterday for an apparent breakthrough in my developmental biology education - or may be for just acknowledging the potential power of development.  A high five from the boss is only second to the proverbial 'gold star' - a classic embedded in the hearts of all since elementary school.

So what exactly did I do to earn this symbol of achievement?  One of my current goals is to identify the receptor that sea urchin larvae use to sense the quantity (and possibly quality) of food in the environment (see variable development page).  We have a couple of candidates, none of which have panned out thus far.  So how to proceed?... through developmental biology.  If I can prevent the development of this sensory system through genetic pertubation(s), then we can use genomic approaches to identify the genes, including the receptor, which comprise the sensory system.  Ah ha... genius.  Now to find the right genetic perturbation...

Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday Feature: A Noisy Ocean

How do larvae of organisms living on coral reefs navigate between the inhospitable open ocean to the productive coral reefs?  Noise.  It has been known for a while now that reef fish can hear and orient to the noisy reef.  Shrimp and crabs snap.  Parrotfish grind up corals and waves crash on the perimeter.  If audio recordings of an active healthy reef is played away from the reef, the number of larvae collected dramatically increases.  That fish, who are fellow vertebrates, can hear is probably not a surprise.  Millions of kids talk to their pet fish daily.  What might be more surprising is that coral larvae which are simple invertebrates are also attracted the sounds of the reef.

As the reefs degrade and motorboats become more common, the noise will change.  How will this change the larval supply to the reefs?  The future of coral reefs may partially depend on playing lullabies, of archived audio recordings of healthy reefs, to lure babies. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thank you "so much"

It was odd but very nice to get a confirmation email for job that was enthusiastic about receiving my application.  "Thank you so much for applying!"  Well... thank you for reading and hopefully, thank you for hiring me!!  Ah... job application season.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Feature: Seeing the light at the end of the apple

While they're not marine and very annoying in your house, fruit fly larvae have an interesting way of sensing light to improve survival.  Once their heads are buried in a fruit, it is beneficial to get the rest of the body in that fruit as well.  This decreases predation and dessication risk.  However, the main larval visual organ ('eye') has already been buried, so how does the larva know whether its behind is sticking out?  There's a novel array of neurons along the body wall that respond to light.  How these neurons actually detect the light is still a mystery!

So why do I care about fruit flies?  Well, unlike Palin, I recognize that fruit flies have been an exemplary model organism for understanding ... well life, including how we work.  More directly, I care because I'm studying a cell type in the sea urchin that we believe is involved in detecting light - even though there isn't an "eye" per se.  Fruit flies and maybe sea urchins prove that the way that humans work isn't the only way.  There are many ways to achieve something - here vision.
Light-avoidance-mediating photoreceptors tile the Drosophila larval body wall, Nature advance online publication 10 November 2010. doi:10.1038/nature09576

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday Feature: Where have all the corals gone?

Another week has flown by and with it has come some new insights into the resilience and fraility of larvae in the face of climate change - including a more acidic ocean due to the rising CO2 levels.

Corals have served as a poster child for the harmful effects of a rapidly warming world.  Images of bleached and dying corals have been a mainstay in climate change research for the past decade, plus. It is feared that calcification by the corals to make reefs may be negatively impacted. Now it appears that there additional threats to these critical habitat-forming species. Rebecca Albright at the University of Florida and her co authors report in PNAS that the larval and juvenile stages of a threatened coral species suffer greatly under predicted low pH (ocean acidification) conditions.  From fertilization to settlement, projected acidification would result in a 52-73% decrease in the number of successful larval recruits!

Photo by Susie Balser, Illinois Wesleyan University (acquired from
For more information see news coverage at or if you have access, the PNAS article at

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Feature: Life of a Sand Dollar (aka sea biscuit)

Every Friday, I plan to post images or video of larvae to demonstrate the beauty, utility and critical importance of this life stage.

One of the best videos showing the larval (and juvenile) life of an echinoderm.  In our lab we study sea urchins which are closely related to sand dollars.  The larvae look very similar.  Most of our lab and other developmental labs only study the first few days or hours during embryogenesis (in the video, the few seconds spanning the egg dividing and gastrulating (making a gut)) to gain insights into early developmental events, e.g. initial specification and differentiation, which are difficult to study in mammals.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Self dispersal

It can become a yearly event in a postdoctoral lifecycle with a specific phenology occurring in the fall - job applications.  It is a depressing, reflective, hopeful, and stressful time.  How many hundreds of applicants will each job get this year?  Will I even make the initial cut?  Get an interview?  The sad truth is, like many other professions, there is a gluttony of applicants and a scarcity of positions.  I think most of us knew that the money wasn't good, but the creativity, intellectual challenge and freedom made up for that.  But what happens when we fall out of the pipeline because we can't secure a job?  I know that's not very inspiring to those thinking about pursuing this career... and I had a hard time reconciling my (and friends') struggles along this career path with an educational workshop in which I participated where one of the goals was to increase interest in scientific career paths.  But I guess that's the nature of these types of careers - artists, performers... and now scientists.  We persevere for the love, defeats, and triumphs associated with exploring the unknown.

So I will continue my attempts to disperse to a new location with the hope of undergoing microevolution into an Assistant Professor.  I am at the mercy of the currents as to where I settle again - across country, down the street, or back to my birthplace... or stay put for now?  

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Inter and intra- disciplinary research

Sometimes, its like talking to someone in Russian.  All I know how to say in Russian is hello, thank you and delicious.  It was enough to get by on a Russian ship for a month, but not enough to enable the creation and innovation needed to fuel science.  In that case, I relegated myself to surviving the trip (without eating Borscht).

Now I'm find myself in the mecca of biomedical sciences and this time on a yearly timescale.  It was time I learned a new language.  Through seminars, journal clubs, and discussions in the hallways, I think I've done a pretty good job picking up biomedical speak and the ABCs of the institution.  I thought that oceanography had too many acroynms; I was wrong.  Oceanography had nothing on biomedical sciences.  Every gene, mutant, and imaging platform has an acronym and possibly multiple acronyms that all mean the same thing.  It was exhausting but I can now read a fruit fly development paper (yes, Sarah Palin, we spend millions and millions to study fruit flies) or a human neuroimaging paper and not reach for the keyboard to google a term.

So why does this matter?  Why is it so important to learn to speak biomedical or physics or geology?  I have to learn many languages because I want to.  I see the potential for innovative and exciting science at the nexus of different disciplines and subdisciplines.  I scoff at the traditional disciplinary barriers.  Why can't a biologist use a physics model?  Why can't an ecologist survive, and actively contribute, to a cancer institute?  New perspectives on old problems can bring new insights, answers and questions. I believe that by overlapping and overreaching our comfort zones, we can bring (as my current institution loves to say) transformative changes.  So here I am, a biological oceanographer and ecologist at the largest biomedical research institution seeking to learn and advance both oceanographic and biomedical science.

Now... to teach my colleagues enviro- or eco-speak.