Dispatches from the Gulf: Film examines the effects of Deepwater Horizon oil spill

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster may no longer be a buzzword in the media, but the effects of history’s largest oil spill on the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico are still on the minds of marine scientists around the world. Gulf seafood seems to be recovering, but biologists are keeping a close eye to the seafloor, where much of the oil has settled into the sand. Take a closer look at the lingering effects of the spill Tuesday night at the Houston Museum of Natural Science with a special screening of the science documentary Dispatches from the Gulf.

This April 20 will mark the sixth year after the massive failure and subsequent explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, also known as the Macondo Prospect, an offshore drilling platform 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The blast claimed the lives of 11 workers and from a depth of 5,000 feet, pumped more than 200 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas into the Gulf over a period of 87 days. A month after the disaster, BP, the operator of the prospect, announced it would commit $500 million over 10 years to the study of the effects of the spill.

GULF OF MEXICO - APRIL 21:  In this handout image provided be the U.S. Coast Guard, fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana.  An estimated leak of 1,000 barrels of oil a day are still leaking into the gulf. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon's 126 person crew. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

GULF OF MEXICO – APRIL 21: In this handout image provided be the U.S. Coast Guard, fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana. An estimated leak of 1,000 barrels of oil a day are still leaking into the gulf. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon’s 126 person crew. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

In addition to the tragic loss of life, many environmentalists expected a total collapse of the ecosystem leading to further economic effects in the fishing and seafood industry, yet as early as five years later, CNN reported fish landings had returned as well as the oyster population.

“According to the Food and Drug Administration, tests on edible seafood show no excess hydrocarbons in the region’s food supply,” Drew Griffin, Nelli Black and Curt Devine of CNN.com reported. “The spill’s effects on other species are less clear. … But perhaps the greatest unknown is what, if anything, millions of gallons of oil on the deep seafloor are doing to the overall environment of the Gulf itself.”

Our own Associate Curator of Malacology Tina Petway is one of the scientists keeping watch. She flew over the disaster while the oil was still free-flowing, visibly bubbling above the surface of the water from the break at depth. To her, the Texas coastline is the least of her concerns.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster created an oil slick visible from space.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster created an oil slick visible from space.

“The oil can wash up in globs, which is bad for folks walking or playing on the beach,” Petway said, “but the real problem is that the oil stays in the environment even though they have removed a huge quantity of it. A lot of it has sunk.”

On the bottom of the Gulf, the oil has created a mat of tar, leaving the sand impenetrable to oxygen and light, Petway explained, eliminating everything beneath the mat from the habitat. Chemicals from the oil are leaching into sandy and muddy seafloors, making hydrocarbons difficult, if not impossible to dissolve or wash away.

“Just because you don’t see anything on shore anymore doesn’t mean it’s not still out there,” Petway said. “Ongoing research is being done as to the effects, and it is constantly being updated.”

Watch the screening of the science documentary Dispatches from the Gulf Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m. in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The film will recap the unprecedented response effort following the disaster and delve into the research of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). Tickets $18, members $12. For one night only!

You can learn more about the delicate Texas coastal ecosystem at the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology.

Sharks are now oversharing…but you will want to follow them!

half-mount2-blogYoung or old, nature lover or couch potato—everyone has some fascination with sharks.

HMNS is bringing in some great opportunities to learn about these predators who have dominated the oceans for millions of years. Leading shark researchers will be at HMNS during the next two weeks to share the latest information on our local sharks in the Gulf of Mexico and the grand-daddy of them all, the great white.

On February 25 marine biologist Dr. Glenn Parsons from Ole Miss will share the findings of his 40-year career of researching shark behavior, ecology and physiology in the Gulf of Mexico, which harbors about 65 species of sharks. Sharks here are exposed to both natural stressors including changes in water temperature and oxygen availability and anthropogenic stressors that are caused by humans, pollutants and fisheries.

This is Katherine getting her and tag checkup aboard the OCEARCH vessel.

This is Katherine getting an ultrasound and tag checkup aboard the OCEARCH vessel.

Unprecedented research on great white sharks and other large apex predators will be presented by shark researcher Dr. Greg Stunz of the Harte Institute and Texas A&M Corpus Christi with OCEARCH founder and expedition leader Chris Fischer on March 4. In order to protect the species’ future while enhancing public safety and education, researchers with the OCEARCH collaborative are now generating previously unattainable data on the movement, biology and health of great white sharks. The images they will show on the Wortham Giant Screen will be insanely amazing.

Of course you can also get up close and personal with two different shark species at the Museum in the Shark! touch tank experience, where biologists will share shark tales and shark tails.

HMNS Distinguished Lectures

“The ABC’s of Sharks: Attacks, Biology and Conservation
Glenn Parsons, Ph.D., Ole Miss
Wednesday, February 25, 6:30 p.m.

“Great White Sharks, Tracking The Ocean’s Apex Predator”
Greg Stunz, Ph.D. and Chris Fischer, OCEARCH
Wednesday, March 4, 6:30 p.m.

Tickets & more info: www.hmns.org/lectures


Need to keep up with a busy shark who is always on the go?
Now you can stay connected to your favorite shark via a phone app, Twitter and Facebook!

shark-tracker-app-iconOCEARCH’s Global Shark Tracker app lets you observe the navigational pattern of sharks that have been tagged with satellite tracking technology all for the purpose of shark conservation.

OCEARCH facilitates unprecedented research by supporting leading researchers and institutions seeking to attain groundbreaking data on the biology and health of sharks, in conjunction with basic research on shark life history and migration.

OCEARCH is a leader in open source research, sharing data in near-real time for free through the Global Shark Tracker, enabling students and the public to learn alongside PhDs. The Landry’s-developed STEM Education Curriculum, based on the Global Shark Tracker and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), is being launched for grades 6-8 in the fall of 2013 nationwide.

Over 50 researchers from more than 20 institutions have collaborated with OCEARCH to date with over three dozen research papers in process or completed. Research expeditions are conducted worldwide aboard the M/V OCEARCH, which serves as both a mothership and at-sea laboratory. Utilizing a custom 75,000 lb. capacity hydraulic platform designed to safely lift mature sharks for access by a multi-disciplined research team, up to 12 studies are conducted in approximately 15 minutes on a live mature shark. Powered by five Cat engines, the M/V OCEARCH is capable of Global Circumnavigation.

Here are screenshots showing the favorite hangouts of Wyatt, Sam Houston and Madeline—a few sharks in our neighborhood. 

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Send your girls careening toward a career in hard sciences with HMNS summer camps

Let your young lady soar with HMNS’ Careers in Science program, designed to encourage girls to explore, well, careers in science!

Girl Scouts - Careers In Science
The Careers in Science curriculum offers three classes: Paleontology, Biology and Chemistry.

Careers In Science: Paleontology

At the Paleontology class, participants meet off-site and dig into history to uncover 45 million-year-old fossils from locations on the banks of the Brazos River and at a park teeming with petrified wood. Each participant keeps the fossils she finds!

Girl Scouts - Careers In Science
In Biology class, participants go behind the scenes of the Cockrell Butterfly Center to learn where our butterflies are sourced, how the plants are grown and even how our waterfall works. They’ll also interact with live insects and learn just what makes our “containment room” so important.

Girl Scouts - Careers In Science
Finally, Chemistry class teaches participants about everyday chemical reactions through hands-on experiments, including creating chemical temperature changes and understanding the role chemical reactions play in cooking.

Siblings at least 10 years of age can also participate in class with the purchase of a ticket, and each class ticket allows one adult to accompany each child.

Email scouts@hmns.org or check out the website for more information. You can also sign up for our monthly Scouts newsletter and be the first to learn about upcoming classes!

The Eyes Have It: Evolutionary Development and DNA

Today’s guest blogger is Neal Immega. He has a Ph.D. in Paleontology and is a Master Docent here at HMNS. In his post below – originally printed in the Museum’s volunteer newsletter – Neal discusses Evolution Development and DNA.

Popular media crime shows, like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, show amazing applications of DNA technology. For example, a person can be traced to a specific location by means of cells he left on a door knob.

A new science called “Evo-Devo,” shorthand for Evolutionary Development, can tell us even more amazing information. Evo-Devo techniques probe deeply into the structures of DNA to look at how DNA actually codes for the growth of body parts, telling us more about the animal kingdom than we ever dreamed possible. It shows genetic similarities between very different organisms and lets us understand how two organisms, like mice and men, can have DNA that is 85% similar and, yet, code for very different organisms.

We all know the basics of DNA molecules, where the genetic code is stored by a very long sequence of four proteins strung together in various arrangements. That is the easy part! What we need to
worry about is how these genes blueprint a living being. Geneticists, like Sean Carroll (whose popular books are listed in the references box), have discovered that the DNA code is made up of some large master programs that control things, such as eyes, and lots of very small programs (they call them switches) that control what kind of eye will be displayed.

Normal Fruit Fly
Image courtesy of The Exploratorium

Let’s confine ourselves to understanding and experimenting on simple life forms, such as fruit flies. To figure out which specific piece of DNA causes some feature to appear in a developing embryo, geneticists experimentally inactivate a segment of DNA, transplant the complete strand (including the inactivated segment) back into the egg, fertilize that egg, and then see what turns up missing. If that missing part is not vital for survival, the egg might even grow into an adult fly. Compare the drawings of a normal fly with the one below it where the master program for eyes has been deleted.

Eyeless Fruit Fly 
Image courtesy of The Exploratorium

Such experiments have found that the master program for making eyes can cause an eye to grow on a fly’s leg, body, antenna, or inside the body, depending on where it is placed on the DNA strand. Check out the drawing showing the results of moving the master program for legs to the site of the antenna. Note that the extra legs are fully formed but lack the neuron connections to the brain and so are not functional. (In the references box is a link to an electron microscope image of a real fruit fly that shows a mutation in which eyes replace antennae.)

Various mollusks (like clams, snails, and octopuses) grow eyes that vary in complexity from very simple sensitive pits to complex eyes that would compete well with human eyes. The EXACT SAME eye master program from a fruit fly can replace the eye master program for a squid, and it will grow a perfectly functional squid eye. You might be tempted to say that fruit flies and squids are cousins.

Fruit fly with extra legs
replacing the antennae 
Image courtesy of The Exploratorium

That is an amazing statement, but to take it even further, the same experiment with a mouse eye master program will grow fly eyes on flies and squid eyes on squids. They only differ by the small switch segments. These experiments establish a link between vertebrates and invertebrates that paleontologists are unlikely to find in the rock record. This also helps explain the amazing degree of structural similarity between mice and men—although many of the master programs are similar, the really critical parts of the DNA are the small switches that control the details.

Mollusks have just one master program that is controlled by different switches. Pectens, for example, have the most complex vision arrangement of any animal with three different types of eyes on its body. The DNA can be experimentally adjusted to grow any of these eyes anywhere on the body. Random mutations could thus cause novel arrangements, and survival would judge their fitness—evolution in action.

The switch concept explains how mice, chimps, and humans can have a similar number of genes. The switches control the result of the master programs. You can pick up any modern textbook and read that men and chimps have nearly identical genes. It is the switches that make us different and that provide the evolutionary means for dramatic changes, good and bad.

The fossil record is full of cases where a dramatic new species just appears. Paleontologists have often wondered if this was caused by a missing rock interval, by migration, or by rapid evolution. The concept of rapid evolution has often been discounted because it seemed to violate the incremental nature of evolution. We now can see how rapid evolution may just be a single point mutation in a switch. There are numerous biological examples where altering one protein is lethal, as in Tay-Sachs disease, or altering another might bear strongly on survival, as in changing
the color of hair from white to black.

Geneticists can now explain things in a way that profoundly affects how we think about evolution. Biologists and paleontologists have always wondered if evolution had to generate complex structures like eyes from scratch for each phylum. The reuse of master programs from very simple life forms through complex ones means that evolution can build on what went on
before. Critics of evolution often claim that eyes are too complex to have evolved. (The “half-an-eye-is-nogood” argument is derived from the first sentence of the Darwin quote in the box below.) Now, with Evo-Devo tools, we can see commonalities between the genetics of simple life forms and complex life forms– between clams and people.

The possibilities just became more complex.

REFERENCES:
Wyoming Dinosaur Center: http://www.wyodino.org/

Sean B. Carroll:
Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo-Devo, (paperback) 2006
The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution,
(paperback) 2007
Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species, 2009

Lynn Helena Caporale:
Darwin in the Genome: Molecular Strategies in Biological Evolution, 2002

SEM (scanning electron microscope) photograph of eyes replacing antenna in a fruit fly by Naoum
Salame. http://1tv4.sl.pt

Fly Eye Genetics:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/04/4/text_pop/l_044_01.html
Renowned scientist Dr. Walter Gehring discusses master control genes and the evolution 
of the eye.

Darwin, 1859, The Origin of Species, http://darwin-online.org.uk/contents.html. In most editions, the quote appears on pp143-4.