Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why snails sometimes wear nail polish and corals sometimes wear tampons

The second floor of the Naos Laboratories is packed to the ceiling with high-tech DNA sequencing equipment: precision incubators, heatblocks, PCR machines for replicating DNA molecules, robots for processing samples and DNA sequencing machines.

It’s a different story up on the third floor. You’d be surprised at what things ecologists bring in from home to use in the lab.  Here are a few of the items we use in the CollinLab:

Nail polish is great for marking individual snails.  We want to follow snails in the intertidal to see if they return every day to the same pool or crevice.  Now that you can get so many colors it's perfect to just dab a bit of polish on each snail. 

20 years ago it was all shades of red and pink, but now the snails can really shine. 
…. and yes, certain snails look better in certain colors.

A yogurt maker has been used in the lab to test the tolerance of Nerita egg capsules to high temperatures.  Aquarium heaters have a built-in shut-off before they reach temperatures experienced in tropical tide pools. The yogurt maker hits the exact temperature.

Custard dishes.  We buy these by the case to use for larval rearing experiments.  They fit perfectly under the microscope.

It's not just the CollinLab that gets creative.  In fact, we are rather tame in our choices compared to some famous marine biology researchers.  My favorite examples include:

In a flamboyant landmark study Mimi Koehl and Tom Powell threw pounds of glitter, poppy seeds and snapdragon seeds off the rocks of the Washington coast.  They wanted to understand how waves disperse small particles away from the intertidal. The glitter and seeds were used to model different kinds of marine invertebrate eggs (some eggs are buoyant and some sink).  So they released thousands of these "artificial" eggs at one time and used fluorescein to label the sea water.  A team of students and helpers scooped up samples of water along the coast to track the movement of the different particles to see if they all traveled in the same way with the water. 

In a another important but quirky study, researchers working at the Bocas del Toro Research Station tied tampons to corals.  They wanted to understand the causative agents of coral disease.  Davey Kline and Steve Vollmer extracted different microbes from infected areas of coral tissues.  To find out which of these cause the disease, which are benign, and which are secondary infections that do not transmit the disease, they needed to expose corals to the different isolated microbes.  They searched the small town of Bocas del Toro for materials that could be used to absorb the different solutions and tied to the corals to expose an area of health tissue to the potential pathogens.  Tampons turned out to be perfect!  The experiment was a success and was published in Nature-Scientific Reports.

Let us know if you have used art, kitchen, or personal supplies for unusual scientific purposes.