Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

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Uncovering Secrets in the Salt Marshes

by Peter Fields

As research subjects go, Geukensia is hardly charismatic. Or photogenic. These sturdy white mussels that live in the salt marshes of the Jersey Shore may seem uninteresting, but what they can contribute to science is truly fascinating.

What makes Geukensia scientifically significant is how it manages to thrive in one of the harshest environments on Earth—the intertidal zone. Inhabiting this area, which ranges from the lowest low tide to the highest high tide, the species must adapt to being both submerged and exposed. Sometimes they have access to oxygen, other times they don’t.

It is this ability to survive a challenging habitat that caught the interest of Associate Professor of Biology Peter Fields. “Generally, my research interests are in how organisms survive in extreme environments,” says Fields. “In the past, I’ve looked at animals that live in Antarctica, Mexico, and the Galápagos.”
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His current research seeks to understand how Geukensia manages to withstand the rigors of its unique environment. “What I’d like to get are general rules and principles that will help us to understand why some species can survive in certain places that almost no other species could survive in. And I go at that from a biochemical level.”

Thanks to a $209,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Fields has the funding to enable him to bring F&M students on board to participate in his investigations. This summer, Rudy Clausen ’10, Elizabeth Burmester ’10, and Bill Gao ’11 are assisting by exposing the organisms to different forms of stress in the laboratory in order to measure their biochemical response.

“We’re trying to sort out whether the biochemical response is similar, independent of the kind of stress they experience,” says Fields, pointing out that the students now are independently handling almost all of the work in the lab. Students expose the organism to varying levels of heat, salinity, or oxygen, and then they conduct dissections to extract the proteins of interest.

Using specialized software, they then measure changes in proteins in response to specific stressors. They also use advanced biochemistry techniques, including 2-D gel electrophoresis and mass spectrometry. “What they’re doing is really pretty advanced and takes a good bit of training and a good bit of effort on their part. They’re really doing a great job at it,” Fields says.

The findings of this research may ultimately contribute to our understanding of the ability of organisms to survive in the face of human-induced stresses, including climate change. The students involved in this ongoing research will also have the opportunity to co-author peer-reviewed articles and present their results at national meetings.

“It’s quite unusual for students to be able to get this kind of opportunity at the undergraduate level, using the high-end instrumentation that we have here at F&M,” says Fields. “A major goal of the project is student training and student experiences in research and so I wrote the grant trying to include students as much as possible.”
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