Magazine article Oceanus

Journey into the Ocean's Microbiomes

Magazine article Oceanus

Journey into the Ocean's Microbiomes

Article excerpt

The next time you encounter scientists, ask them about the eureka moment that spawned their research pursuits. You might hear about ideas that emerged from scribbles on the back of napkins at a noisy bar or from bubbles during a long hot bath. For me, it all began in a cramped classroom as I pored over a research paper about bacteria in poop.

It wasn't the most glamorous source of inspiration, but this paper spurred a scientific awakening. 1 learned that there were ten times as many microbial cells in my body as human cells. I could almost feel my brain rewiring as I realized that my body was not just mine, but in fact a home to millions of symbiotic microbes, and that this collective microbial community, called a microbiome, exerted remarkable influence on my development, metabolism, immunity, and even behavior. I was more than just a human. I could be considered a "superorganism" composed mainly of microbes.

A few days later, more inspiration came my way, wrapped in a sari. I heard a story about how in 2005, a team of microbiologists led by Rita Colwell discovered an easy way to dramatically reduce the spread of cholera in Bangladesh. They found that if people simply filtered drinking water through their folded traditional garments, they could lower their cholera infection rates by 50 percent. The filtration removed copepods-shrimplike animals the size of a grain of rice-which can carry an infective dose of bacteria called Vibrio choleme. The bacteria attach to copepods, receiving more food and protection than "free-living" bacteria in the open ocean, and perhaps some advantageous transportation, too.

Thus began my journey to investigate questions that hadn't been explored before. Was this just a one-way relationship, or did copepods also receive benefits from their hitchhiking companions? Were copepods just passive rafts for bacteria, or could individual copepods actively attract or avoid particular types of bacteria attaching to them? Could the copepods, in turn, exert controls over bacterial lifestyles in different ways-and thereby influence bacteria populations in the environment?

Though tiny, copepods are innumerable. They constitute the greatest animal biomass on Earth and are a crucial link in the ocean food chain. So answers to these questions could be game-changers for figuring out how different bacteria, including pathogenic ones like Vibrio choleme, survive and thrive in the environment.

Treasured mentors

I can barely remember a time when I didn't want to be a marine biologist. As a 12-year-old on a family vacation, I took a tour of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and envisioned where I wanted to be someday.

As a freshman at Georgetown University, I finally had my chance to start living my dream. I made dozens of phone calls, looking for ways to become a guest student at a marine lab during the summer. One of those calls was to Ann Tarrant, a biologist at WHOI. Her enthusiasm about her research enthralled me, and I gratefully joined her lab for the summer.

At the time, I knew nothing about molecular biology or copepods. Starting with how to use a pipette, Tarrant taught me about both. I returned to her lab after my junior year, this time as a WHOI Summer Student Fellow, to continue our research project on copepods.

In my senior year, I listened to advice from my first and perhaps one of my most important scientific mentors, my dad. He urged me to contact Colwell to talk about her work. Colwell had just recently stepped down as director of the U.S. National Science Foundation and was back at the University of Maryland campus.

After an uneasy night's sleep, I arrived on campus an hour before our appointment, before most students were awake, nervously pacing in anticipation of meeting my scientific idol. I second-guessed why she had even agreed to fit a meeting with an undergraduate student into her extremely busy schedule. But I am so glad that she did. …

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