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News Tip


November 5, 2002

For more information on these science news and feature story tips, please contact the public information officer at the end of each item at (703) 292-8070. Editor: Josh Chamot

Lake Microbes Hold Keys to Understanding of Basic Biology

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 Dybas]

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New England Lakes May Hold Clues to Future Storms and Floods

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 UVM.

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 rise.

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 21 lakes.

"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 Dybas]

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Students Descend on "Mission to the Abyss"

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." [Cheryl Dybas]

Students and the public can log onto the expedition web site at:

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Seven NSF Awardees Selected for Popular Science's 2002 "Brilliant 10"

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 body parts.

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]



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