Dec 10, 2012 3:34 PM by Melissa Canone
Researchers at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette are studying the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. One team of scientists will examine how razor clams and ghost shrimp affect the way oil is distributed and ultimately broken down by bacteria along the coast. The other will try to to uncover the possible impact of the spill on blue crabs by looking at their genes.
The projects are funded through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, a national, independent research program established with money from British Petroleum. It has awarded more than $130 million of the $500 million set aside by BP for research into the effects of the disaster.
Drs. Paul Klerks, Darryl Felder, Andrei Chistoserdov and Febee Louka will receive $1 million over three years. They will create a lab that simulates the shoreline. It will have saltwater, sand and oil. Then they'll add the clams and shrimp. These animals dig into the sand, causing the oil and seawater to mix. The clams may burrow a foot or so into the sediment, while the shrimp create burrows as deep as nine feet.
"Because both species move a lot of sand and move water into the sand, increasing oxygen levels, we expect to see an increase in oil dispersal and removal. It's important to examine this scientifically, though, because no one really knows what effects they may have on where oil is found and how fast it is digested by microbes," Klerks explained.
Klerks, an assistant professor of biology, is the study's principal investigator. His expertise includes environmental toxicology, the study of pollutants in the environment. Felder, a professor of biology, is also an associate research scientist for the Smithsonian Institution. He is an expert on marine crustaceans. Chistoserdov, a marine microbiologist, will monitor microbial populations throughout the study, to see whether there is an increase in microbes that break down oil. He is an associate professor of biology. Louka is an assistant professor of chemistry.
The project will help train young scientists; undergraduate and graduate students will work on the study.
The second team, Dr. Joseph Neigel and Bree Yednock of UL Lafayette and Dr. Caroline Taylor of Tulane University, was awarded $1.3 million over three years for their research on blue crabs.
Neigel is a biology professor who is an expert in population genetics. He and Taylor are co-principal investigators. Yednock, a graduate student who works in Neigel's lab, spearheaded the research project.
Yednock said she wanted to study blue crabs because even though they are abundant, little genetics research has been done on them. The knowledge she and Neigel gain could be used to help better manage coastal fisheries.
In 2009, they began a study to better understand how crab larvae move along the coast and how closely related various crab populations may be to one another.
It's a complex question. Each spring, female crabs swim far from shore, where they lay millions of eggs. One crab may produce as many as two million offspring.
"Those eggs hatch and the larvae become part of the plankton, floating offshore for a month or two. Eventually, they move onshore to mature," Neigel explained.
Taylor, a biologist, developed models of gulf currents, which were used to predict how larvae might be dispersed along the coast. The UL Lafayette team collected DNA samples from crabs in various bays along the coast that can be used to test those models. They compared environmental differences, such as salinity and temperature, and discovered that some crabs had different versions of genes that adapt to varied environmental conditions.
"When the oil spill hit, it seemed natural to say, 'We can use this foundation to look at how the spill affected blue crabs.' So, we're using the tools we developed to answer a new set of questions," said Neigel.
When he analyzed data collected by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in the year following the spill, he was surprised to find a dramatic increase in the number of blue crabs.
"It seems counter-intuitive but because the spill resulted in a widespread closure of fisheries, it may be that more crabs were left in the gulf. Or it may be that Louisiana crabs have adapted genetically to oil in the environment," he said.
"So, we're trying to define ways of detecting the effects of the oil spill that could be separate from the effects of the fisheries closure."
Bree Yednock, a UL Lafayette doctoral student, collects blue crab larvae for genetic analysis.