Spotlighting the Other CO2 Problem

student-researcher Julia McMahon ’15 (left) performs research at Friday Harbor Labs.

Associate Professor of Biology Tony Pires received a $248,040 NSF grant to study the effects of ocean acidification. Above, student-researcher Julia McMahon ’15 (left) performs research at Friday Harbor Laboratories with Helene Tiley, daughter of Holly McLaughlin Tiley ’84. Photo courtesy of Pires.

A $248,040 NSF Grant Funds Research on Ocean Acidification

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

It’s been called “the other carbon-dioxide (CO2) problem.” And while it may not get as many headlines as global warming, it, too, is an area of considerable concern.

Ocean acidification (OA)—the chemical changes that occur when carbon emissions are absorbed into the ocean—alters oceanic ecosystems and affects growth, reproduction and development in a variety of marine organisms. With oceanic CO2 levels up significantly since the Industrial Revolution and increased OA expected in the near future, it’s a front-burner area of research.

Associate Professor of Biology Tony Pires is among those on the case. He recently garnered a $248,040 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study how OA affects a key marine species, both immediately and long-term. The project is funded through July 2017.

Pires and a colleague at Tufts University will work side-by-side with student-researchers at Dickinson and Tufts throughout the academic year, and they will collaborate during the summers at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL), a leading marine-research facility.

The work draws on Pires’ previous research on the slipper limpet, a marine snail native to the eastern U.S. that has been introduced in the Pacific Northwest and Europe. He says it’s an ideal test subject because it’s well-studied and its larvae are relatively large and easily cultured, allowing researchers to use a wide variety of experimental approaches. And as an invasive species outside its native range, it plays an important role in ecosystems that are responding to climate change.

Pires’ student-faculty research team is cultivating thousands of slipper-limpet larvae, tracking their development as they grow and metamorphose into the adult form. Their work thus far reveals that even brief exposure of larvae to acidified conditions can impact their growth at a later stage of development.

Pires learned about the NSF grant during the summer, while performing Center for Sustainability Education-funded pilot research at the FHL labs with biology major Julia McMahon ’15. McMahon, whose summer internship was supported by Dickinson’s NSF-STEP grant program and the University of Washington, plans to continue her research this year. She and Pires will present results at a national conference in January, and they expect to co-publish in a professional journal in the spring.

“Julia is involved in every stage of the project, from literature search to experimental design, to culture of organisms and collection, analysis and reporting of results,” says Pires.

“I’ve already learned so many things that made me love research even more than I already did,” adds McMahon, who also studied Central Pennsylvania’s snapping-turtle population with Associate Professor of Biology Scott Boback. “It’s an amazing experience, and it really helped convince me that I want to pursue a research career.”

Read more about recently funded research, including Associate Professor of Biology Tom Arnold’s study of ocean acidification in Brisbane, Australia.

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Published August 28, 2014