Tag Archives: outreach

Rethinking oyster reef restoration and coastal community resilience: The use of biomimicry and outreach to offset the growing risk of invasive species

“I like to think of them as the corals of estuaries,” says Megan Considine as she describes the role that oysters play in coastal systems all over the world. Megan is a first-year Marine Resource Management Masters student who is working on a project to map the distribution of an invasive mud worm (Polydora websteri) that infects native shellfish such as the commercially grown Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) and wild populations of Olympia oysters (Ostrea lurida).

Oyster transplant project in the Lynnhaven River, a tributary to the Chesapeake Bay where Megan worked prior to coming to OSU. Photo courtesy of Megan Considine.

Megan explains that these tiny worms don’t make the oyster meat inedible, as infected populations can still be harvested and sold for canning, but they do become unmarketable on the half shell. This is because the worms crawl between the inner shell surfaces, and the oyster then grows new shell material over it to wall off the invader. The worm then deposits muddy material or debris into the shell pocket and essentially creates a blister. Although these blisters are not known to negatively impact the oysters themselves, they are not exactly aesthetically pleasing to the consumer. This is what is really hurting the multi-million dollar industry and the main reason stakeholders from Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California are all working together to detect and prevent further spread of the worms. 

A Pacific oyster infected by the invasive mudworm, showing blisters that have been opened up to try and extract the worm. Photo courtesy of Megan Considine.

Dr. Steve Rumrill is the Shellfish Program Leader at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and as courtesy faculty of Hatfield Marine Science Center is Megan’s primary advisor. Working with ODFW, Megan visits shellfish farms located in estuaries along the Oregon coast and picks up oysters which are inspected for worms. If found, samples are then sent to a lab in Washington for genetic analysis to confirm infestation. Megan says that farmers may not even know their oysters are infected and she hopes to expand her work beyond just ecological sampling to outreach and mitigating an emergent problem.

“I want to create an education piece in Spanish and English, so that farmers can be aware of when their oysters are infected.”

Megan’s passion for education goes far beyond aquaculture. Getting back to her coral analogy, oysters are not just important to aquaculture here in the Pacific Northwest. Ecologically, they are incredibly valuable wherever they occur both when living, for example, filtering the water column, but also after they die. Their calcium carbonate shells provide the foundational habitat that supports an incredible diversity of estuarine life. 

For a long time in oyster restoration efforts, it’s been understood that substrate is a primary limiting factor in supporting this reef-building capacity of oysters. According to Megan, in the PNW, they were just completely overharvested during the Gold Rush era. In addition to her work on invasive mud worms in oyster farms, Megan is also a part of efforts to restore natural oyster populations in Oregon, specifically at Yaquina Head. And this is an area of research Megan has been passionate about for some time. 

Megan getting ready to snorkel assist with coral restoration in the Florida Keys working with Mote Marine Laboratory. Photo courtesy of Megan Considine.

Originally from Virginia Beach, Megan recalls her time as an elementary school student being tasked along with her classmates to monitor the growth of a bag of oysters donated by a local non-profit. Along with studying their entrusted specimens, she says that they would also engage in other activities about estuarine ecology surrounding oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. This hands-on experience would come full circle when after completing her undergraduate studies at the University of South Carolina, Megan had the opportunity to intern with the same organization, Oyster Reef Keepers, that sponsored the oyster education program in several schools, leading kids through many of the same activities that sparked her early fascination with estuary ecosystems and marine science.  

Although a more well-known issue on the East coast, Megan explains that oyster habitat degradation is a world-wide problem and she came to Oregon State to expand her knowledge of its effects in other places. She says that oyster restoration hasn’t had as much momentum here in the West because aquaculture has been the focus, but it’s gaining traction. Concern over threats like climate change to coastal ecosystems have supported this trend. Although oysters are  less sensitive to climate change impacts like ocean acidification than corals are known to be, it still may compromise their ability to cope with other direct threats, such as invasive species. 

At Yaquina Head, Megan is working with an artist from the East coast named Evelyn Tickle who makes concrete tiles to be used in oyster reef restoration that are designed to mimic natural oyster beds. These one square foot tiles differ from the cinder block structures that have been used to provide substrate for the oysters to grow on in the past by providing a more complex structure made of compounds like calcium carbonate. Overall, the tiles give oysters a better chance to establish amidst other stressors. 

Megan has been so inspired by Evelyn’s work that she has begun working with two other OSU students, Chad Sullivan and Nicolás Gómez-Andújar, to develop other biomimicry concrete structures for future restoration efforts that support the erosion and storm mitigation services that both oysters and corals provide to coastal systems. They are calling themselves the Urban Reef Lab. 

Megan on one of many coastal trips taken since Megan moved to Oregon; exploring the West coast is one of her favorite pastime’s. Photo courtesy of Megan Considine.

“The idea is that instead of using simple and smooth breakwater structures or sea walls, we can incorporate textures and shapes that are designed for specific organisms. So, working with nature rather than against. For instance, if the goal is oyster settlement we would use the appropriate texture such as crevices and pits. The designs can also be used as hard substrate for coral outplants or for oyster restoration efforts, like the Yaquina Bay project.”

To learn more about Megan’s research and outreach goals beyond her graduate work, tune in to KBVR 88.7 FM or stream online March 15, 2020 at 7 P.M. 

Proteins run the show (except when they unfold and cause cataracts)

Your eye lenses host one of the highest concentrated proteins in your entire body. The protein under investigation is called crystallin and the investigator is called Heather Forsythe.

Heather is a 4th year PhD candidate working with Dr. Elisar Barbar in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. The Barbar lab conducts work in structural biology and biophysics. Specifically, they are trying to understand molecular processes that dictate protein networks involving disordered proteins and disordered protein regions. To do this work, the lab uses a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). NMR is essentially the same technology as an MRI, the big difference being the scale at which these two technologies measure. MRIs are for big things (like a human body) whereas NMR instruments are for tiny things (like the bonds between amino acids which are the building blocks of proteins). Heather employed OSU’s NMR facility (which has an 800 megahertz magnet and is on the higher end of the NMR magnetic field strength range) to investigate what the eye lens protein crystallin has to do with cataracts.

Your eye completely forms before birth, and the lens of the eye that helps us see is made of a protein called crystallin. This protein is essential to the structure and function of the eye, but it cannot be regenerated by the body so whatever you have at birth is all you will ever have. However, in the eye lens of someone affected by cataracts, the crystallin proteins become unfolded and then aggregate together. They stack on top of each other in a way that they are not supposed to. A person with cataracts will suffer from blurry vision, almost like you’re looking through a frosty or fogged-up window. While the surgery to fix cataracts (which basically takes out the old lens and puts in a new, artificial one) is pretty straight-forward and not very invasive, it isn’t easily accessible or affordable to a lot of people all over the world. Cataracts is attributed to causing ~50% of blindness worldwide, likely due to the fact that not everyone is able to take advantage of the simple surgery to fix it. Therefore, understanding the molecular, atomic basis of how cataracts happens could result in more accessible treatments (say a type of eye drop) for it worldwide.

This is where Heather comes in. There are different types of crystallin proteins and Heather zeroed in on one of them – gamma-S. Gamma-S is one of the most highly conserved proteins (meaning it hasn’t changed much over a long time) among all mammals, which tells us that it’s super important for it to remain just the way it is. Gamma-S makes up the eye lens by stacking on top of itself, making a brick wall of sorts ensuring that the eye lens retains its structure. However, research prior to Heather’s found that with increased age there is an increase in a modification called deamidation, which occurs in the unstructured loops of the gamma-S protein. Deamidation is a pretty minor change and is common in proteins all over the body, however in the eye lens if too much of it happens it no longer is a minor issue since it starts to disrupt the structure and protein-protein interactions of the eye lens. Heather’s collaborators at Oregon Health Sciences University found that there are two sites on the gamma-S protein (sites 14 and 76) where these deamidation events increase the most in cataracts-stricken eyes. It’s been known for a while that this deamidation is associated with cataracts however we never knew why it is associated with cataract formation because the changes caused by this modification were seemingly minor. This is how the Barbar Lab, and Heather specifically, became connected to this work since they specialize in studying unstructured proteins and protein regions, such as the loops present in gamma-S.

An example of an “1H(x-axis) 15N(y-axis) HSQC” spectra, aka, the fingerprint of a protein. This spectra is of WT gamma-S crystallin.

These deamidation changes are mimicked in the lab by creating two different mutants of the gamma-S protein’s DNA. Heather then compared the two mutants with the normal DNA by putting them through a series of experiments using the trusty NMR. The NMR is basically a large magnet that can make use of the magnetic fields around an atom’s nucleus to determine protein structure and motions. When Heather puts a protein sample into the NMR, the spins of the atomic nuclei will either align with or against the magnetic field of the NMR’s magnet. The NMR spits out spectra, which look like a square with lots of polka dots. This is essentially the fingerprint of the protein, unique to each one and extremely replicable. Heather can analyze this protein fingerprint since the different polka dots represent different amino acids in the gamma-s protein. Heather can compare spectra of the two mutants to the spectra of the normal protein to see whether any of the dots have moved, which would signal a change in the position of the amino acids.

After running experiments which measure protein motions at various timescales, from days to picoseconds, Heather discovered significant changes in protein dynamics when either site 14 or 76 was deamidated, however at different timescales. What this discovery means is that if both of these mutations are associated with cataracts and they are changing the same regions of the gamma-S protein, then these regions are likely central to changes resulting in cataracts. Therefore, research could be directed to target these regions to perhaps come up with solution to prevent and/or solve cataracts in a non-surgical way. The results of Heather’s study were recently published in Biochemistry.

Heather with her dog Piper.

Heather is from Arkansas where she completed her high school and undergraduate education. Living in a single-parent, non-academic home at this time, it took Heather a long time to figure out how to navigate the scientific and college-application scene, as well as even coming to the realization that science was something she was good at and could pursue. Despite receiving scholarships for college, she still had to work multiple jobs while in high school and college to have enough money for car-payments and gas to get to extra-curricular activities and volunteer jobs in the science field; things critical for graduate school applications. As a result, Heather is a strong advocate for inclusivity, striving to make things like science and college in general more accessible to low-income and diverse students. Heather’s decision to leave Arkansas and come to the PNW was inspired by advice she received from her undergraduate advisor who told her “not to go anywhere where you wouldn’t want to live. You will learn to love research, whatever it ends up being, but if you live in an environment that you don’t find fulfilling, then you are going to suffocate.”. Following this advice has lead Heather to where she is now – the senior in her lab where she has become a mentor to undergraduates, makes Twitter-famous Tik Tok videos (see below), goes on adventures with her dog Piper, and publishes cutting edge structural biology research.

Heather and her undergraduate mentee performing The Git Up in the lab.

To learn more you can check out the Barbar Lab website and Twitter page.

To hear more about Heather’s research, tune in on Sunday, September 29th at 7 PM on KBVR 88.7 FM, live stream the show at http://www.orangemedianetwork.com/kbvr_fm/, or download our podcast on iTunes!

Infection Interruption: Identifying Compounds that Disrupt HIV

Know the enemy

Comparing microbial extracts with Dr. Sandra Loesgen.

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, is the virus that leads to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Most of our listeners have likely heard about HIV/AIDS because it has been reported in the news since the 1980s, but our listeners might not be familiar with the virus’s biology and treatments that target the virus.

  • HIV follows an infection cycle with these main stages:
    • Attachment – the virus binds to a host cell
    • Fusion – the viral wall fuses with the membrane of the host cell and genetic material from the virus enters the host cell
    • Reverse transcription – RNA from the virus is converted into DNA via viral enzymes
    • Integration – viral DNA joins the genome of the host cell
    • Reproduction – the viral DNA hijacks the host cell activity to produce more viruses and the cycle continues
  • Drug treatments target different stages in the HIV infection cycle to slow down infection
  • However, HIV has adapted to allow mistakes to occur during the reverse transcription stage such that spontaneous mutations change the virus within the host individual, and the virus becomes tolerant to drug treatments over time.

Faulty Machinery

Due to the highly mutable nature of HIV, a constant supply of new drug treatments are necessary to fend off resistance and treat infection. Our guest this week on Inspiration Dissemination, Ross Overacker a PhD candidate in Organic Chemistry, is screening a library of natural and synthetic compounds for their antiviral activity and effectiveness at disrupting HIV. Ross works in a Natural Products Lab under the direction of Dr. Sandra Loesgen. There, Ross and his lab mates (some of whom were on the show recently [1] [2]) test libraries of compounds they have extracted from fungi and bacteria for a range of therapeutic applications. Ross is currently completing his analysis of a synthetic compound that shows promise for interrupting the HIV infection cycle.

“Uncle Ross” giving a tour of the lab stopping to show off the liquid nitrogen.

Working in Lab with liquid nitrogen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Havin’ a blast

Chemistry Club at Washington State University (WSU) initially turned Ross onto chemistry. The club participated in education outreach by presenting chemistry demonstrations at local high schools and club events. Ross and other students would demonstrate exciting chemistry demos such as filling hydrogen balloons with salt compounds resulting in colorful explosions piquing the interest of students and community members alike. Ross originally made a name in

Collecting Winter Chanterelles in the Pacific Northwest.

WSU’s chemistry club, eventually becoming the president, by showing off a “flaming snowball” and tossing it from hand to hand—don’t worry he will explain this on air. For Ross, chemistry is a complicated puzzle that once you work out, all of the pieces fall into place. After a few undergraduate research projects, Ross decided that he wanted to continue research by pursing a PhD in Organic Chemistry at Oregon State University.

 

 

Tune in this Sunday October 7th at 7 PM to hear from Ross about his research and path to graduate school. Not a local listener? Stream the show live or catch this episode on our podcast.

Comunicación Científica con Franco

Kristen Finch interviewing Francisco Guerrero for this special episode. (Photo by Adrian Gallo)

This week on Inspiration Dissemination we will be featuring a previous guest: Francisco Guerrero, a PhD student in the Department of Forest Engineering, Resources, and Management. Francisco’s first interview aired on October 18, 2015, and we called him back for a follow-up because he has been selected for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship. As a fellow, Franco will be writing feature stories about climate change and health for CNN en Español. Part of the fellowship will involve helping with film production, as well. FUN FACT last time Franco was on the show, he told us that he always wanted to be a movie producer. Franco will take this amazing opportunity during the final push for his PhD research to enhance his science communication skills and gain experience in production and video broadcasting.

This special interview will begin at 6:30 pm on May 6, 2018. We will be asking Franco about the application process, his responsibilities as a fellow, and his goals for the fellowship. After our interview with Franco, we will rebroadcast his first interview on Inspiration Dissemination at 7 pm.

Tune in to KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM at 6:30 pm to hear about the AAAS Fellowship and learn about Franco’s research in the College of Forestry. Not a local listener? No sweat! Stream the show live on line or hear the podcast next week.

Franco wants to hear from you! Tweet him with ideas for CNN Español, specifically stories about Climate Change and Health. 

The folks behind the episode: Francisco Guerrero, Kristen Finch, and Lillian Padgitt-Cobb. (Photo by Adrian Gallo)