November 5, 2002
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Editor: Josh Chamot
Contents of this News Tip:
While we live in an age of biotechnology, scientists
still have basic questions to answer. Among them:
what microbes live in lakes and can they benefit humanity?
Now researchers are probing lakes in Wisconsin, discovering
new organisms with as yet unknown traits and learning
how microbe communities react to environmental changes.
The discoveries could be invaluable, for microbes have
provided us with important drugs like streptomycin
(the first antibiotic important in treating tuberculosis),
and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique
that is critical for studying DNA.
"Despite the fact that bacteria play a major role in
important processes in lakes, such as nutrient and
carbon cycling, we know very little about them," says
Eric Triplett, a biologist at the University of Wisconsin
- Madison. "We'd like to know how bacterial communities
in lakes respond to changes in the environment, including
water chemistry and weather. With recent changes in
Earth's climate and with the invasion of exotic species,
such as the zebra mussel, this is a very interesting
time to study a lake's microbial community."
Triplett is one of many scientists participating in
the National Science Foundation (NSF) Microbial Observatories
program. Each researcher studies different microbial
habitats, from the gut of a caterpillar to the soil
of an Alaskan rain forest, cataloging the previously
unknown microscopic organisms living in various ecosystems.
Triplett's research involves studies of Crystal Bog
and Crystal Lake in northern Wisconsin, and Lake Mendota
in Madison. Water samples he and colleagues have collected
from these lakes contain dozens of never-before-seen
species of bacteria. The researchers have observed
significant changes in these microbe communities --
even over a period of one week -- related to changes
in their environment.
Preliminary findings show that water temperature plays
a role in determining the structure of the bacterial
community, and changes in this community correspond
with changes in other communities, such as algae.
The findings also suggest that geographic location
and water chemistry lead to significant differences
in bacterial communities between lakes. [Cheryl
Top of Page
Is New England headed for troubled waters? Significant
storms and floods may be on the horizon, according
to geologists at the University of Vermont (UVM),
whose research is funded by NSF.
Storminess has peaked in the North Atlantic region
roughly every 3,000 years over the last 13,000-year
period. "And the last big group of storms was almost
3,000 years ago," says Paul Bierman, a geologist at
Bierman enlisted a team of colleagues and students
to collect and study core samples from 21 lakes in
Vermont and New York's Adirondack Mountains. While
they cannot predict exactly when the next big storm
will hit, the regional storm and flood patterns the
researchers were able to establish are red flags for
emergency planners, who rely on early detection to
quickly evacuate people to higher ground when waters
Seventy-five years ago, record rainfall overflowed
rivers and partially submerged several Vermont towns,
killing 55 people and destroying $30 million in property.
But, the 1927 flood was merely a drop in the bucket
compared to earlier -- and possibly future -- hydrologic
hassles, Bierman says.
In a laborious process, Bierman's team collected lake
sediments by hammering 20-foot pieces of 3-inch-diameter
PVC pipe into the bottom of frozen lakes and extracting
core samples that were later sliced, photographed
and painstakingly analyzed.
During "nor'easters," cyclones and hurricanes, debris
is eroded from upstream and transported to lake basins
where the material forms a layered record of storm
activity. The study's main conclusions were culled
from an analysis of the flood chronologies of all
"There may be much bigger floods than the 1927 disaster
lurking out there," Bierman says. "But the most important
thing to come out of this research is that, for the
first time, we know the history of stormy periods
in New England over the past 13,000 years." [Cheryl
Top of Page
Marine scientists are taking students and the general
public deep into the Pacific Ocean as part of "Extreme
2002: Mission to the Abyss," a research expedition
that doubles as a virtual field trip to hydrothermal
vents at the bottom of the sea.
Led by University of Delaware marine biologist Craig
Cary, the 23-member Extreme 2002 scientific team set
sail October 20 aboard the research vessel Atlantis.
The NSF-supported mission will continue through November
12. Once at the site along the East Pacific Rise,
more than 1,000 miles west of Costa Rica, the scientists
will descend nearly two miles in the submersible Alvin
to one of the most demanding environments on Earth.
In addition to the hydrothermal vents, researchers
will study the creatures that inhabit them, including
the Pompeii worm, known as the world's "hottest" animal
for its ability to withstand temperatures up to 176
degrees Fahrenheit (80 degrees Celsius).
Forty-one thousand students from more than 500 schools
are participating in Extreme 2002, representing 49
states, and countries which include England, South
Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There they
will take part in the scientists' latest discoveries
via video clips, photos, interviews and journals that
will be relayed back to shore on a daily basis.
"This project is about getting kids excited about science,"
says Cary. "We want to introduce them to one of the
most fascinating habitats on the planet, and engage
them in the process of scientific research and discovery."
Students and the public can log onto the expedition
web site at: http://www.ocean.udel.edu/extreme2002
Top of Page
Popular Science has named its 2002 "Brilliant
10" -- 10 leading scientists who are "shaking up their
fields and whose work will touch your life." The awardees
have made important research discoveries, ranging
from computer security breakthroughs to artificial
Of the 10, NSF has supported seven in studies ranging
from nanoscale computing to bioengineering. Popular
Science, a science news magazine with a circulation
of over 1.5 million, showcases the researchers in
their November 2002 issue.
The seven NSF grantees and their Popular Science
award categories include Charles Lieber of Harvard
University (nanotech), David Clemmer of Indiana University
(chemistry), Linda Griffith of the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology (tissue engineering), Angela Belcher
of the University of Texas at Austin (materials science),
David Wagner of the University of California at Berkeley
(cryptography), Lydia Kavraki of Rice University (computer
science), and Raphael Bousso of Harvard University
(physics). [Josh Chamot]