Thursday, April 10, 2014

it's the final countdown

Hey Guys,

So the title of this post literally is the theme for April for myself and most graduate and undergraduate students. I have a really fun post I'm working on about "Darwin, Dating, and Cooties" that will be up hopefully by the end of the weekend. I hope it makes you laugh, get offended, and make you ask questions about our society and microbes (because everyone does that right?). In the mean time, I am writing a proposal for class and wanted to send my idea out to you, my science and non science readers, to get a feel for what you think. Years ago in my microbiology population genetics class we did this exercise of sharing our ideas via blogs so that before we wrote the darn thing, we already had critiques on our ideas.

So, I am writing about nitrogen loading effects on microbial communities in streams. Nitrogen loading is a huge issue across the US, a silent "contaminant" that stimulates eutrophication in watersheds. This basically means that is destroys aquatic life and in result, ecosystem services. The New England area in particular has a serious issue with nitrogen (as well as other nutrients) loading in our watersheds (Casco Bay, ME is one example). The reason why I know all this is because a couple years ago I was an intern for the EPA Region 1 Headquarters in Boston looking at how to approach this nitrogen/nutrient loading problem we're having. There are certain sources of nitrogen: Point Sources, which are waste water treatment centers, and Non-Point sources, which include land run-off from agricultural/developed land as well as atmospheric nitrogen. These sources all go into watersheds (rivers, streams, lakes, and estuaries interconnected in a certain land area) and cycle through. Now under normal circumstances this is fine; however, with the increase of nitrogen from these sources, there is too much nitrogen/nutrients in the water and can no longer be retained in marsh lands and used up by the microbes/plant life. This rising nutrient level then causes algae/phytoplankton blooms and in turn, eutrophication. It is of great importance that we find a way to approach this issue.

You can see my old TEDxYouth Talk here about this issue too (was also on an old blogpost).

Anyway, because my next rotation involves soil biota and carbon cycling, I decided to combine the papers I'm reading to prep for the rotation and twist it so I am also reading them for this proposal (yay efficiency)…plus it's all pretty fricking cool.

So my thought was that you could look at the microbial communities in stream bed sediments and see how they are reacting to these point and non-point sources. By understanding the community shifts (bacteria populations shifting in ratios), the functions that are present in the community (looking at extracellular enzymes), as well as how the nitrogen is affecting the carbon/nitrogen cycling of the community (rate of cycle, labile vs recalcitrant carbon, etc)… We may be able to utilize what we learn to coming up with new forms of bioremediation. Not to mention this research, since it's considered "field work", could be applied to nitrogen loading models (such as SPARROW) that I believe look at microbes as a "black box" in their equations, rather than individual communities responding to each type of source. That part I still need to check, but I do know that when it comes to global climate change models and looking as microbial communities as a variable, it would be helpful to have this data.

*This is an updated note after I received some feedback:

When looking at the effects and relating it to the course (Cell Physiology), we had learned how cells make energy, how cells compete/interact using that energy, etc. This study would focus on determining the dominant method of energy production, how nitrogen is utilized/the rate of which it is utilized, as well as how the community, in it's competition to survive in a dynamic environment, alters with pathways/products in response to each other.

Good questions brought up as well such as what are the seasonal effect (I do have papers on that!) and what other factors could be affecting the shift (iron, phosphate, etc).

Final point that I forgot to mention was I am trying to think of ways to test these communities in the lab to see if nitrogen is truly having an effect. Once again, reading a ton of papers as I type.

I literally came up with this yesterday evening, so I would love feedback. I am aware that different literature have approached this in different ways (such as using a model, looking at C:N in the soil and other biochemistry approaches, using sequencing to determine the microbial communities and any changes, etc) but from what I can tell, it hasn't been approached in this particular manner and looking at these many variables (though there may be a reason for that too I haven't stumbled upon). Please tell me if I'm wrong though!

If you understood all that, what I'd like to know is:

1) Does this make sense?
2) Did someone already do this?
3) Do you see flaws in the idea already?
4) Are there other questions maybe I should be asking? Or maybe not asking?
5) Do you need more info than what I gave thus far in order 1-4? (you can comment and just write "#5")

Hope you enjoyed my mini spiel and look on the blog soon about Darwin, dating, and cooties! (Oh and a first date story that's priceless).

Please make comments (or vote on the blog poll)! And you can be mean, it's okay, I'm used to grant reviewers… Have skin of steel now.