Take 5: A ‘Nor’Easter’ on Florida’s tropical shores?

by Northeastern News

For the next two weeks fac­ulty, stu­dents, and staff from North­eastern University’s Urban Coastal Sus­tain­ability Ini­tia­tive and led by pro­fes­sors Mark Pat­terson and Brian Hel­muth are taking part in Mis­sion 31. Explorer and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of leg­endary marine explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau, is leading the month­long under­water expe­di­tion. But how and why did a North­eastern team from the chilly shores of New Eng­land end up bringing a “Nor’ Easter” to the trop­ical shores of Islam­orada, Florida? Here, Hel­muth and Pat­terson dis­cuss their moti­va­tions and excite­ment for joining forces with the project.

1.  A child­hood dream come true.  Mis­sion 31 honors the work of Fabien’s grand­fa­ther, the famed explorer and ocean advo­cate Jacques Cousteau. More specif­i­cally, M31 cel­e­brates the 50th anniver­sary of “Con­shelf II” in which Cousteau’s team lived on the bottom of the sea for 30 days. Today, the only undersea “habitat” is Aquarius, located in the Florida Keys and oper­ated by Florida Inter­na­tional Uni­ver­sity.  We serve as Cousteau’s sci­ence advi­sors and have both pre­vi­ously used Aquarius exten­sively for our research. But even more impor­tantly, nei­ther of us would have become marine biol­o­gists without the influ­ence of Jacques Cousteau when we were chil­dren. Working with “JYC’s” grandson is a nat­ural fit, and the oppor­tu­nity to excite younger gen­er­a­tions in the same way that we were drawn to ocean sci­ence is an oppor­tu­nity that was simply too good to pass up.

2.  Cleaner, smarter, safer coastal com­mu­ni­ties.  In many ways, the themes of Mis­sion 31 are a per­fect fit with those of Northeastern’s UCSI. Both focus on the effects of cli­mate change and on the intri­cate con­nec­tions between humans and the envi­ron­ments in which they live, and specif­i­cally in under­standing how we can live sus­tain­ably on the shores of vul­ner­able coastal envi­ron­ments. Florida’s reefs are, sadly, an example of what can go wrong when we don’t pay atten­tion to what is hap­pening in coastal com­mu­ni­ties and are far from pris­tine. But in a way, that is a plus: if we only study rare sit­u­a­tions of ecosys­tems com­par­a­tively free from human impact, we will never under­stand how we can live sus­tain­ably as part of the nat­ural world.

Full cov­erage: North­eastern at Mis­sion 31

3.  High tech marine biology on the sea floor that can be shared with the world.  Fabien’s pas­sion for the ocean and for the use of modern tools to share the excite­ment of ocean explo­ration is infec­tious, and our crew has like­wise caught the bug. The North­eastern team—which includes the two of us as well as two research tech­ni­cians, four grad­uate stu­dents, and two aquanauts—brought more than 20 crates and boxes of high tech equip­ment to study coral reef health, as well as camera and video equip­ment to share the expe­ri­ence with the world. Starting with a series of events orches­trated with the Museum of Sci­ence, we will be able to share the excite­ment of Mis­sion 31 as a truly immer­sive (pun intended) experience.

4.  Exploring cli­mate change effects on threat­ened organ­isms.  Studying ani­mals like mus­sels, oys­ters, and lob­sters that can be picked up at any seafood store is one thing, but how do you study an animal that may date to the time of King Arthur? We will adapt methods that we’ve devel­oped to study the biology of New Eng­land shell­fish to studying the biology of centuries-​​old giant barrel sponges, without ever having to touch the crea­ture. Using high tech oxygen sen­sors, water flow meters, and equip­ment more often seen on an oper­ating table, we will study the health and phys­i­ology of corals and sponges, as well as the food that they eat—microscopic zoo­plankton for the corals and bac­teria for the sponges.

5.  A “library of Alexan­dria” of marine DNA.  North­eastern recently joined forces with the Ocean Genome Legacy, a public repos­i­tory of DNA from thou­sands of marine ani­mals. This extra­or­di­nary data set includes col­lec­tions from around the world, and Cousteau’s team will col­lect sam­ples from sponges that will be archived at North­eastern along with exten­sive envi­ron­mental data that we col­lect while we’re here. You never know—the next cure for cancer, or the next sur­gical adhe­sive, may lay within a few feet of the Aquarius habitat. By archiving this DNA, we hope to ease the work that bio­med­ical researchers must do to find these novel genes while the reef is still here.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on June 20, 2014

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