The University of Alabama

UA Scientist to Bring Tiny Sea Life from Gulf to Campus to Study Oil Spill’s Impact

An anemone of the same species Jenny is studying. (Courtesy Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A University of Alabama molecular biologist will soon bring dozens of tiny, transparent animals who live in Gulf Coast waters back to his campus laboratory as part of an effort to better understand the oil spill’s long-term impact on the coastal environment and creatures living there.

The National Science Foundation awarded Dr. Matthew Jenny, assistant professor of biological sciences at UA, a research grant for the project focusing on sea anemones, small animals related to the corals that build ocean reefs.

Jenny, working in collaboration with researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, will collect and preserve anemones pulled from coastal waters from Alabama to Louisiana.

“We will also bring back live specimens and maintain them in clean seawater to allow them to recover from the oil exposure,” Jenny said.  During the anemones’ recovery, the researchers will compare the live specimens to those preserved at the time of collection to see how the two groups’ functions and vital processes differ, as well as how they differ molecularly.

Jenny and his primary collaborator, Dr. Ann Tarrant, at Woods Hole, proposed using a specific kind of anemone, known by scientists as Nematostella vectensis, in part because its entire genome, or its total genetic content, has been sequenced. This helps make it a useful model from which to learn and draw conclusions applicable to other organisms.

Following the late April explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, millions of gallons of oil have poured into Gulf waters. As microbes worked to naturally break down both the oil and the chemical dispersant added during containment efforts, this likely lowered the oxygen levels in Gulf waters, researchers say, further stressing sea life. The UA project seeks to measure the extent of impact of the combined stressors of oil exposure and low oxygen, as well.

Using molecular techniques, Jenny and his collaborators will determine which genes in the anemones collected from oil-exposed sites have been affected and how this impacts various functions, including the animal’s ability to store energy and reproduce.

These results will be compared to complementary laboratory experiments where the one-inch-long anemones have been fed Artemia larvae contaminated with oil and dispersant. These larvae are microscopic, shrimp-like animals, raised in the laboratory within various concentrations of oil with or without dispersant. These laboratory studies will assist researchers in determining if dispersant enhances the exposure to oil within food webs. 

“The results of these experiments will provide insight into the different molecular and cellular processes that are used to protect the organism from combinations of stressors that are associated with the oil spill and exposure to oil or dispersed oil,” the researchers wrote in their grant application’s project summary.

The grant’s approximate $110,000 in funding is one of the NSF’s Rapid Response Research Grants which fund quick-response research on natural disasters or similar unanticipated events. Results from this project, in combination with various other research efforts, are expected to assist scientists in predicting the long-term impact of the oil spill, and future disasters, on organisms and their environments.

Portions of the grant will also fund the training of two UA doctoral students in various scientific techniques used during the project.

UA’s department of biological sciences is part of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards including Rhodes Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships and memberships on the USA Today Academic All American Team.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.