Most people are unfamiliar with the importance of sea urchins to marine ecosystems. known to many as “uni”, these little spiky balls are more than just a tasty seafood dish. Sea urchins are a keystone species, meaning that too many of them and their habitat becomes barren, too few and their predators lose an important food source.
This summer I am doing research in Dr. Gretchen Hofmann’s lab located in the Marine Science Institute. The Hofmann lab aims to study the physiology and performance of marine organisms in response to both present-day environmental conditions and to expected conditions in the future. My specific research project focuses on examining the effects of varying pH and temperature conditions on the early development of the Painted urchin, Lytechinus pictus. Before we get into the nitty gritty details let me give you a little background. Climate change is happening and it’s occurring at a pace faster than we have anticipated. Our ecosystems are dramatically changing and many different species are having to adapt in order to survive. As the ocean absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide, a series of chemical reactions take place. Consequently the ocean becomes more acidic and the supply of carbonate, a chemical compound that is crucial to the development of many organisms, is diminished. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is also causing temperatures to rise and heat waves to occur at temperatures that are alarming. Many marine organisms including sea urchins are sensitive to these environmental changes and are forced to adapt to these conditions.
My research project will require me to work closely with L. pictus as I explore and manipulate their reproductive process and development. By spawning these urchins in the lab, I play a role much like a puppet master. I pick out my male and female urchins and I determine when the urchin eggs are fertilized. I then place the embryos in manipulated growing environments set up to mimic future predicted climate conditions. While observing the offspring develop into larvae, I can observe whether their environmental conditions had any impact on their growth and if they experience physiological changes that impact their performance. Physiological performance is an important topic to research as we do not know what climate change has in store for these marine organisms.
My research does not limit me to just a lab setting but I also will get to experience being out in the field taking samples. This aspect of my research is very exciting to me because research in the lab and out on the field are so different from one another. In the lab, I get to experience new equipment and observe amazing transformations under a microscope. In the field, I get to see nature and see first-hand the environment I am researching. These experiences I have had in the lab and out in the field have strengthened my passion for marine research. It is only the beginning of the summer but I have had such a great experience thus far and I cannot wait for what is to come.