Monday, September 30, 2013

Hi! My name is Tracy Harvey and I am a master’s student at the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute (UTMSI). Here at UTMSI, we are investigating the biological impacts of oil spills as part of the DROPPS (Dispersion Research on Oil: Physics and Plankton Studies) Consortium. I have been doing short-term incubation experiments exposing different species of protozoa, a group of unicellular organisms found in the ocean, to crude oil. Understanding protozoa responses to dispersed oil is important because they are a diverse group at or near the base of marine food webs.

One of the coolest species I have worked with is Noctiluca Scintillans (commonly known as 'sea sparkle'). N. Scintillans is a planktonic organism that gets its food by consuming other organisms. It is native to the Gulf of Mexico and is known for its bioluminescence along the coast during winter months, as seen in the picture below. Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism and is often used as a defense against predators.
In order to culture these guys we have to take plankton tows off the UTMSI research pier on incoming tides.

 As you can see, we end up catching a lot more than just N. Scintillans!

Because of N. Scintillans’ transparent balloon-shaped body it is easy to see what is going on internally. Compared to other protozoa cells, these cells are quite large. We are currently in the process of looking at N. Scintillans under the microscope to see if oil exposure changes its behavior. 

My next step is to look at the swimming behavior of other protozoa exposed to crude oil. Be sure to stay tuned to the DROPPS blog for more information on our research!